Case Study Pin

Role of defense contractors in the torture of detainees at the Abu Ghraib facility in Iraq.

In 2004, a scandal broke out with regard to the mistreatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib facility in Iraq. This prison was under the control of the US military. The detainees were captured as part of the US’ campaign on “War on Terror”. It was revealed that the detainees were tortured and suffered from inhumane and degrading treatment at the hands of the soldiers. They were victims of the ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. The interrogation and translation services at the facility were provided by private security companies who had a contract with the US government.

Keywords: torture, sexual violence, inhumane treatment, detention


The Abu Ghraib facility is a large prison complex in Baghdad, Iraq. During the regime of Saddam Hussein, it was infamous for the detainment and torture of political prisoners. The prison was reopened in 2003 by the US military after the invasion of Iraq by the US and its allies. In 2003, the Associate Press published the first press report focusing on the mistreatment of detainees under U.S. control at the Abu Ghraib facility. By 2004, images of abuse and torture taking place at the facility emerged as part of CBS’s “60 Minutes 2” program, leading to a scandal for the then US President George W. Bush’s administration.

A report from the US army’s internal investigation carried out in 2004 under Army General Antonio Taguba, detail the shocking practices that were followed. One gruesome image that quickly became well publicized was of US Army specialists giving a thumbs-up and posing next to the dead body of Manadel al-Jamadi who was clearly tortured and died of asphyxiation.

CACI International Inc. was a defense contractor hired by the US to provide interrogation services at Abu Ghraib. The company L-3 Services (formerly called Titan Corporation) was the contractor responsible for translation services. They were hired as the US military lacked enough trained interrogators to fully staff the Abu Ghraib facility. The employees and managers of CACI have been accused of directing or/and encouraging torture and of covering it up.

In 2008, four plaintiffs who were formerly detained at Abu Ghraib filed a lawsuit against these defense contractors for their complicity in torture.

The Incidents

Detainees were physically and sexually abused, inflicted electric abuse and mock executions. The report by Taguba include incidents of rape, photographing and videotaping nudes of male and female detainees, use of extreme force against them and more. Torture was not limited to just physically but emotionally and psychologically as well. For instance, in one incident a prisoner was coerced into thanking Jesus for his life.

According to one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit field in 2008, he was subjected to electric shocks, deprivation of food, kept naked, etc. Another plaintiff recounted how he was forcibly subjected to sexual acts and forced to witness the rape of another female prisoner. Other incidents include, sensory deprivation, solitary confinement, assault, being forced to be in stress positions for long periods of time, having their genitals beaten and more.

Legal Aspects

Court Cases

On 9 June 2004, a group of 256 Iraqis, who were former detainees at the Abu Ghraib facility, filed a case against CACI and L-3 Services. The defendant companies argued that the subject matter of the claim constituted a political question and so cannot be decided by the courts. They also claimed their immunity as government contractors. The court dismissed the companies’ motion to dismiss the compliant in June 2006. In September 2009, the courts ruled in favor of the defendant companies. Though the plaintiffs filed a petition for an appeal in April 2010, in June 2011 the US Supreme Court announced that it would not hear an appeal in this case.

On 30 June 2008, four other plaintiffs filed a separate case against CACI International Inc. for directing their torture at Abu Grahib prison. The lawsuit does not allege that CACI employees themselves carried out the abuses but that they instructed the soldiers to ‘soften’ up the detainees, so that they would more easily reveal information, even though CACI knew this ‘softening up’ would lead to torture.  In addition to CACI, the lawsuit also filed against L-3 Services Incorporated and against a former employee of CACI, Timothy Dugan.

The plaintiffs are Iraqi civilians who were detained at the Abu Ghraib prison and later released without being charged for any crime. It was filed on the behalf of the plaintiffs by the Center for Constitutional Rights. The case was filed under the 1789 US law Alien Tort Statute (ATS) which can be used to pursue legal claims over alleged human rights abuses and violations of US and international law including torture, assault, sexual assault and battery, negligent hiring and supervision, etc.

CACI has claimed the lawsuit to be baseless. Since the case was first filed in 2008, CACI has attempted 18 times to have the case dismissed. Both L-3 Services and Timothy Dugan were dismissed as defendants in the case in 2008. In 2019, CACI appealed against the 2019 decision of a lower court’s that favored the plaintiffs. In June 2021, US Supreme Court judges declined to hear CACI’s appeal, putting them a step closer to facing a lawsuit by the plaintiffs.

At present, the trial for this lawsuit is set to begin on April 2024 in the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

The International Code of Conduct

The International Code of Conduct requires that Personnel of Member and Affiliate companies take all reasonable steps to avoid the use of force, and if force is used, it should be proportionate to the threat and appropriate to the situation. (Rules for the Use of Force: paragraph 29, Use of Force: paragraph 30-32)

Resources on Use of Force

Additionally, security personnel are only allowed to apprehend persons to defend themselves or others against an imminent threat of violence following an attack or crime against Company Personnel, clients, or property under their protection. Apprehension and detention must be consistent with international and national law, and all apprehended and detained persons must be treated humanely and consistent with their status and protections under applicable human rights law and international humanitarian law. (Detention: paragraph 33)

Resources on Apprehending Persons

Resources on Detention

Under the International Code of Conduct companies cannot allow their personnel to engage in or benefit from sexual exploitation, abuse, or gender-based violence or crimes. Security companies must require their personnel to remain vigilant for all instances of sexual or gender-based violence, and report these instances to competent authorities. (Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA) or Gender-Based Violence (GBV): paragraph 38)

Guidelines on Preventing and Addressing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

Resources on Preventing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

Further, the International Code of Conduct requires stringent selection and vetting of personnel, assessment of performance and duties, and training of personnel of the Code and relevant international law, including human rights and international criminal law.

Meeting the requirements of the Code of Conduct can help private security companies and their clients ensure that private security personnel are qualified, trained, supported, informed, and responsible.

See also: The Montreux Document On pertinent international legal obligations and good practices for States related to operations of private military and security companies during armed conflict


In 2004, in an attempt to undo the damages, the Justice Department stated that it would rewrite its legal advice on how interrogations are to be conducted. The same year, the CIA also stated that it would suspend its use of interrogation techniques at detention facilities until a rule was made on what was permissible. In 2009, torture was banned under the Obama administration. A new legal framework was also created, so that perpetrators could be held liable, irrespective of their status as the employee of a government or military contractor. In 2006, the prison was handed over to Iraqi authorities and in 2014 it was shut down.

A limited settlement was provided by the private security firm responsible for offering translation services to some of the survivors of the abuse at the Abu Ghraib facility. Though 11 soldiers were convicted for their actions, the US military itself has not paid any compensation to any of the detainees.

CACI continues to be a defence contractor for the US government, with the company recently gaining a contract worth 382 million dollars in 2024.


Would better training of the employees of CACI in international law and human rights law have had any impact in mitigating the abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib?

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This case was prepared by Shilpa Suresh, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. 

Descargo de responsabilidad

De acuerdo con la cláusula de exención de responsabilidad de la página de inicio, ni la Asociación del Código de Conducta Internacional ni ninguno de los autores pueden identificarse con las opiniones expresadas en el texto o las fuentes incluidas en «Defender la Seguridad Responsable: El Mapa de Casos del Código Internacional de Conducta».