Tortured Justice: Philadelphia fighting for abused Iraqis
This was the cover story of the Philadelphia Weekly on April 19 - 25.
Susan Burke and her team of lawyers and researchers hope to help right some of the wrongs committed in Iraq.
LAWYER SUSAN BURKE STARES at the photograph of a 43-year-old former Iraqi police officer glowing on her computer screen. The man appears dignified. He has a strong chin and piercing eyes, and the pockmarks on his cheek are barely noticeable in the dim light. He looks dapper in a crisp white shirt and dark suit and tie.
Looking at the image you'd never know what the man had been through.
American soldiers raided the man's home, and he was taken away in front of his wife and five children. The details of why he was detained are sketchy. But he told Burke and her legal partner Jonathan Pyle that he was taken to a prison camp in Northern Iraq and kept in a steel cage roughly 3.3 feet wide and 3.3 feet deep.
He was held there for several days, restricted to the box when not being questioned by soldiers. During interrogations he said he'd been shoved against a wall and poked in his chest with a stick while blindfolded. He also told Burke and Pyle he witnessed horrible things.
He spoke of soldiers ordering a young Iraqi prisoner to punch his father, who was also a detainee. When the son refused, he was ordered to dig a hole in the ground. Then a soldier ordered the boy to lie in the hole and the father to shovel dirt on top. But because the father had only one arm, the burial was long and slow. The soldiers then made the boy crawl out of the dirt and ordered the father to ride the boy like a donkey.
Burke walks away from the image on her computer screen and stands in front of the large window on the second floor of her Powelton Village law office. She takes off her glasses and stares out at the busy intersection of 36th Street, Race Street and Lancaster Avenue. Cars traverse the wet roads and people stroll by with umbrellas. Tears well up in her blue eyes. She's quiet for a few moments and then returns to her computer.
She's just learned the man in the picture was killed in front of his home.
"An unknown gunman shot him in front of his family," she reads from an email.
He's the third of her clients to be killed in recent days, the fourth overall. It appears he was targeted, but Burke can't be certain why.
"We don't have any indication it's because of us," she says, pausing to compose herself. "But it's something we're concerned about."
Susan Burke and her team of Philadel-phia attorneys and researchers are leading a lawsuit against a pair of corporate military contractors whose employees, starting in 2002, allegedly conspired with government officials and military personnel to rape, pistol-whip, threaten, electrically shock, molest, verbally assault, kick, sodomize, urinate on and otherwise torture Iraqi nationals both in Abu Ghraib and other locations across Iraq.
So far, after four visits to the Middle East, they have statements from 144 former prisoners-including the former police officer who has just been killed-detailing episodes of violence, ignorance, spite and cruelty against people who were usually blindfolded, sometimes naked, often with their hands and feet bound.
"I'm of the view you can't torture anybody, whether they're criminals or not," says Burke, a 43-year-old mother of three who sports brown cowboy boots under her black dress slacks. "But these people are completely innocent. The people we've spoken to were all released without charge. There was nothing other than bad luck that got them picked up. And then they get tortured? It's just disgraceful."
Burke speculates the cost of the case, which was originally filed in June 2004, is already in the millions. Out-of-pocket expenses alone have run more than $250,000. A Maryland man provided $100,000 to Burke and Pyle's firm, but the rest comes out of money they make from other clients. The attorneys at the firm spend a significant amount of time working on the torture case-writing briefs, investigating legal options and poring over documents. And dozens of Penn law students have spent countless hours reviewing thousands of pages of documents. Recently Temple law students have begun helping as well.
An attorney in Michigan is also heavily involved, as is the Center for Constitu-tional Rights in New York. But the torture case is primarily a Philadelphia-based project whose goal is to right the alleged wrongdoings perpetrated by people representing the United States.
And Burke's spartan office is the epicenter.
While the death of Burke's client is horrifying and sad, there's more news expected today. Anxiety is already high. The defendants in the case-Titan Corporation, CACI International Inc. and five specific former employees-are expected to deliver a motion to dismiss to the court. They have until midnight, and chances are an email will arrive at the firm at 11:59 p.m. with the paperwork.
Burke and her team are well aware of the likely stand the defendants will take.
"They had a contract with the government, so therefore they should be entitled to something called the 'government contractor defense,'" Burke explains. "You're not liable because the government wouldn't be liable. The government has a lot of immunity from tort suits. So if all you're doing essentially is acting as an arm of the government, then you have some immunity too."
As a legal entity, she says, the United States is prohibited from torturing people, and that clouds that argument.
"The difficulty for them is that this stuff was illegal, so the government cannot legally order that it be done," Burke says. "They're in a bit of a fix in trying to prove that all they were doing was following government orders."
The class action suit doesn't directly fault the United States government or the military-a tactical move, according to Burke.
"We know there were some high-level people involved in this-Rumsfeld and others," she says. "Although our case is against two companies and the individual torturers, it's a conspiracy case. All these people worked together and formed a conspiracy and did torture these people. Naming them makes it more likely we'd embarrass the government into stepping in to try to shut the case down."
The lawsuit refers to government officials, military officials, soldiers and contractors equally as "torture conspirators."
"There's just a voluminous amount of evidence that this stuff happened," Burke says. "There's no way anyone can claim it didn't."
It's already taken 18 months just to settle arguments about where the case should be heard. A district court judge in Washington, D.C., has finally been assigned the case.
The motion to dismiss is the first stage in what's likely to be a process that lasts several years. Burke and her associates have until May 8 to respond to the motion (the judge is expected to return a decision by summer). If the case is deemed worthy of trial, they'll enter a discovery phase-an exchanging of information that could last more than a year.
Burke guesses the case may not be resolved until 2008.
"We're pushing as fast as we can," she says.
"Whenever you look at wartime, there are always things countries have done that they shouldn't have done, whether it's the My Lai massacre or the internment of the Japanese," says Burke. "As a nation, we've got to step up and hold these people accountable and correct them. It's an important part of our democracy."
The daughter of a retired Army officer, Burke started investigating reports of abuse from detainees in Guantánamo Bay and Afghanistan in 2002. At the time she was the head of Tenet Healthcare's regional law offices, and investigating the torture was nonpaying side work. When dealing with both her regular job and the pro bono work became too cumbersome, she left Tenet and became a partner at Montgomery, McCracken, Walker and Rhoads LLP, one of Philadelphia's grand old law firms. There she got other lawyers from the firm involved in the case, including her current partner.
Pyle, 29, wears his long brown hair in a ponytail that stretches halfway down his back. Dressed in a blue flannel shirt, green T-shirt, moss-colored corduroy pants and tan work boots, he looks more like a peace activist than an attorney handling a huge international case with potentially damning implications.
But Pyle, originally from western Massachusetts, was educated at Swarthmore College, graduated from Penn Law and served as a class action defense attorney for three years.
In April 2004 the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, and everything changed. Burke and Pyle immediately shifted their focus to Iraq, especially after the report made by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba was leaked to the media. The report detailed a litany of abuses performed against detainees, and concluded that "several U.S. Army soldiers have committed egregious acts and grave breaches of international law at Abu Ghraib."
The report also listed abuses by contractors, which is when the attorneys realized they had an angle: You can't sue the government, but you can sue those working for the government.
The torture case dragged on, and Burke spent many hours working on it without institutional support from her employers. Last August Burke and Pyle opened their own law practice, Burke Pyle LLC. City Councilman Michael Nutter, a friend of Burke's, is among the new firm's clients.
"It got to the point that it was so politically unfavorable that it was easier to work on it as a smaller firm," says Pyle.
"[Burke] has done this at tremendous personal risk," says Judith Chomsky, an Elkins Park attorney specializing in human rights cases. "She left a big law firm to pursue this case."
Chomsky, who's working on the torture case through the Center for Constitutional Rights, has a long history of fighting corporations that allegedly violate human rights. She was among the attorneys who represented Burmese villagers in a suit against the California oil company Unocal for alleged use of forced labor in Myanmar. The case was settled out of court in 2005. She seemed a natural to join the torture case team.
"There aren't a whole lot of cases like this," says attorney Anne Heidel, 28, a member of the Burke Pyle firm. "It's a lawsuit against private companies on foreign soil involving non-American citizens."
Heidel came to the firm from the powerful law firm Ballard, Spahr, Andrews and Ingersoll LLP, where she handled environmental litigation. Last summer she was approached by Pyle, a classmate at both Swarthmore and Penn, about joining the firm. Another Penn classmate, Heather Allred, also joined the firm and torture case.
"It's a unique opportunity," Heidel says. "You read about this in the news and you think you can't do anything about it. These are people who are profiting on these human beings. This is a way to get accountability. I'm helping atone for what happened."
"When you hear their stories, it really affects you," says Pyle as he recounts tales he heard during his most recent trip to Amman, Jordan, where he interviewed former prisoners.
The stories involve prisoners being forced to stand for hours on end, with some detainees upright for up to 20 hours straight. In many cases they were deprived of food and bathroom access. Some had words written on their faces, and others were forced to touch other naked detainees, male and female.
In one particular instance, five teenage boys were taken into custody during a raid in Baghdad. In blindfolds and handcuffs, they were shuttled to an airport facility and stored in small wooden cells too low to stand in. The boys were allowed to use the bathrooms only twice a day for only 30 seconds each time-and even then they remained handcuffed behind their backs.
"So even if they were in the middle of taking a dump and the time ran out, they could be yanked away," Pyle says.
After a week in the cells the five boys were chained together with other detainees and led onto an airplane runway. They were forced to walk in front of blazing hot engine exhaust that caused people to jump back and jerk around the others who were all tethered.
"The soldiers were laughing," one 16-year-old boy told Pyle.
The boys were then led onto a plane where they were told they were being taken to Guantánamo Bay. Less than two hours later the boys exited the airplane unsure of whether they'd gone anywhere. They were placed in a black interrogation room that had the words "ADMIT IT" written in Arabic in red.
Pyle says soldiers forced the boys to dance, and then they molested them.
In another case a woman carrying her 4-year-old daughter was killed when soldiers broke down her door. The daughter was killed as well. The father had a hood placed over his head and was escorted out of his destroyed home by soldiers.
"They allowed him, as he was being walked blindfolded, to step on the body of his dead wife," Pyle says.
A 17-year-old Iraqi boy was blinded when soldiers tossed a sonic grenade into his house.
"If he had money, he could have his eyes repaired," Pyle says.
The lawsuit lists even more egregious acts of malice. One client says he was tied to 11 other prisoners, all attached with ropes on their penises. Another client was forced to wear women's underwear. Several were threatened with growling, barking dogs. One man, according to the suit, was made to watch as his father was tortured to death.
The abuses continued long after the Abu Ghraib scandal hit the press. And they occurred at several detention centers.
When one prisoner had his head stepped on by a "torture conspirator" while praying inside a prison, he asked, "Why do you torture us and prevent us from worshipping God?"
According to the lawsuit, the torturer responded, "You are under our authority. We can do whatever we want with you."
At times Pyle seems uncomfortable talking about the stories, offering an awkward laugh at odd times.
"You don't know what to say to them," Pyle says of the former detainees. "On behalf of my fellow Americans, I'm sorry this happened to you."
"The most angry groups I saw were the Marines and soldiers who were out in the villages and provinces who were trying desperately to connect with people, to build credibility," says Anthony Zinni, retired United States Marine Corps general. "To them, Abu Ghraib pulled the rug out from under them."
A Philadelphia-area native, Zinni has come to town to promote his new book The Battle for Peace: A Frontline Vision of America's Power and Purpose.
The square-jawed 35-year military veteran briefly pauses outside the Comcast studios on Columbus Boulevard to talk about the prison abuse scandal. "I think there are some questions that have to be answered," says Zinni, who served as chief of the Central Command, the U.S. military headquarters for the Middle East, from 1997 to 2000. "I don't think there's been a satisfactory answer about how these young NCOs [non-commissioned officers] and enlisted men and women came up with these techniques."
The abuses-nakedness, verbal assaults, touching people in culturally inappropriate ways-were too institutional and routine to be random, he says. Reservists from West Virginia or Montana wouldn't coincidentally perform the same brutality in multiple detention centers.
"Those things aren't things that were conjured up somehow at their level," Zinni says. "These are obviously very sophisticated techniques-you talk about what it takes to intimidate an Arab male. That's the question that never got answered with satisfaction to me: Who's responsible? I don't know."
Since retiring, Zinni has been one of the most outspoken members of the military establishment against the way the Iraq war has been handled. And while he's been sharply critical of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the Bush administration in the past, he won't say they're to blame for the prison scandals.
"I'm not going to speculate whether it was a matter of policy, or whether it was the people using these techniques," he says. "Were these approved? Where did they come from? How were they designed? Who was in on the interrogation? Where were these learned? Those questions have to be answered."
Having the abuses heard in court is vital, he says-for the military as much as for the victims.
"One of the most important things we value in the military is a sense of justice, making sure that if something's wrong, there are people held accountable for it," says Zinni. "It's really important in the time of war to keep the moral compass straight."
"More than retribution, they want justice," Pyle says of his clients. "What they want more than anything is to sit in the witness box, say what the person in front of them did and have that person punished for what they did."
Most of the prisoners, Pyle says, were gathered by the military simply because they were within proximity of someone who was thought to be a suspect. Their houses were barged into and severely damaged. During each raid dozens of people-men and women, from young teens to senior citizens-were blindfolded, cuffed and taken away without being given a reason.
The photos of the abuses have become famous, and some of the people in the images are plaintiffs in the case, including the man claiming to be the person in the black robe and hood, standing on the box with electrodes on his hands.
"These are people who are suffering, physically and mentally," Burke says. "To bring them some level of justice and accountability, some sort of compensation, that's the least you can do."
And seeking justice for these people has nothing to do with politics.
"We would've done this even if a Democrat were president," Pyle says.
CACI International's motion to dismiss rolls in around 6 p.m. Titan's arrives at 11:13. In all, there are about 280 pages of briefing to dissect.
John O'Connor, an attorney for CACI, says their motion is complex and hard to summarize, but "basically it's a contention that the complaint fails as a matter of law to state a claim."
The motion reads, "Plaintiffs continue to seek to inject themselves and this court into the process of establishing and overseeing the United States' foreign policy and the manner in which the federal government is waging the war in Iraq."
O'Connor says CACI was under the supervision of the United States military at all times. The motion doesn't address whether the abuses and mistreatments actually occurred because that's not appropriate at this stage of the legal battle, he says.
"CACI has at all times denied those allegations," says O'Connor. "But in a motion to dismiss, you have to start with the assumption of truth."
And now it's time for the plaintiffs' lawyers to really flex their legal muscles to ensure this case goes to court.
"These victims are counting on us to make sure their hopes for accountability don't get dashed at this early procedural stage," Burke says.
If the case goes to trial, many of the victims will come to America to take the stand.
The dead 43-year-old former Iraqi police officer won't have that opportunity.
Just to meet with the attorneys last month in Amman, Jordan, he had traveled at great risk for 15 hours by taxi on a dangerous road. But when he arrived, Pyle says the man was affable and loquacious, sharing stories-both good and bad-and telling jokes.
"What's the difference between a lawyer and a liar?" Pyle recalls the man asking in English.
The attorneys may never know if the man was killed because he cooperated with them.
"The politics are more complicated than that," Pyle says. "If our clients are heard to be hanging out with Americans, they can be targeted. If they are heard to be working against Americans, they can be targeted."
And the violence in Iraq continues.
"It's just kind of surreal," says Burke. "You meet these people-and then they're dead."