Photos of Iraqi prisoners tethered to dog leashes and electrical wires dominated the news when they emerged in 2003 and 2004. The abuse scandal centered at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad aroused bipartisan shock at home and embarrassment abroad.
But more than a decade on, the images and the calls for accountability have faded.
What remains is a lawsuit against CACI Premier Technology, a private contractor that provided interrogation services at the prison, accusing its employees of torture. The suit, brought by four former prisoners, has withstood challenges in federal courts for nearly seven years and is now reaching another key juncture, as both sides await a ruling from a federal judge in Virginia over whether it can proceed to trial.
For plaintiffs and some critics of the government's response, the suit and its labyrinthine path are a reminder that few have faced significant consequences for the documented abuse that Americans carried out after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
"The gap in liability for the post-9/11 counter-terrorism abuses is actually pretty alarming and pretty broad," said Stephen I. Vladeck, a law professor at Washington's American University who has followed the case closely.
Vladeck says judges have been reluctant to let most cases against military contractors proceed, preventing plaintiffs from using the discovery process to gather more evidence that could directly implicate the contractors.
Eleven U.S. soldiers were convicted in military trials of crimes related to the humiliation and abuse of the prisoners. A $5.3-million settlement two years ago with the parent company of L-3 Services Inc., which provided translation services at the prison, is the only known civil penalty imposed on a private firm.
Official reports documented the participation of contractors in several incidents in Abu Ghraib, but none has been prosecuted criminally, nor have any companies been barred publicly from subsequent government contracts, which have been worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
"You had some of the low-level military folks held accountable, but not their leaders further up in their chain of command, and certainly not the private military contractors who were also there, who were involved in many of the very same incidents," said P.W. Singer, author of "Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry." "It is now a decade since, and key players in one of the worst scandals in recent U.S. history have not faced any accountability."
CACI, the subject of the remaining suit, has fought aggressively to protect its reputation, both in and out of court. In 2008, the company's executive chairman, J. Philip London, published a book on the subject: "Our Good Name: A Company's Fight to Defend Its Honor and Get the Truth Told About Abu Ghraib."
The company, whose representative did not respond to requests for comment, argued in recent court filings that it couldn't be sued because its employees were working under military control, and that the courts cannot legally second-guess "sensitive judgments made by the military" on the battlefield. The military itself is legally immune from such lawsuits.
The company also argues that there's a dearth of evidence linking its employees to the four plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
"Plaintiffs cannot identify one instance in which a CACI PT employee inflicted injury on them, directed or encouraged anyone else to injure them, or was even aware of anyone else inflicting injury on these plaintiffs," CACI lawyers wrote in a motion seeking to have the case dismissed.
The men who brought the suit, which seeks unspecified damages, were held at different times between 2003 and 2008. None was part of the prior settlement with L-3, now a subsidiary of Engility Holdings Inc.
One of them, a 44-year-old Al Jazeera reporter named Salah Ejaili, said in a phone interview from Qatar that he was arrested in 2003 while covering an explosion in the Iraqi province of Diyala. He was held at Abu Ghraib for 48 days after six days in another facility, he said.
"Most of the pictures that came out in 2004, I saw that firsthand — the human pyramid where men were stacked up naked on top of each other, people pulled around on leashes," he said in the interview, with one of his attorneys translating. "I used to hear loud screams during the torture sessions."
Ejaili says he was beaten, left naked and exposed to the elements for long periods, and left in solitary confinement, among other acts.
"When people look at others who are naked, they feel like they're animals in a zoo, in addition to being termed as criminals and as terrorists," he said. "That had a very strong psychological impact."
The plaintiffs also say they suffered electric shocks; deprivation of food, water and oxygen; sexual abuse; threats from dogs; beatings; and sensory deprivation.
Taha Yaseen Arraq Rashid, a laborer, says he was sexually abused by a woman while he was cuffed and shackled, and also that he was forced to watch a female prisoner's rape.
Ejaili said that his face was often covered during interrogations, making it difficult for him to identify those involved, but that he was able to notice that many of the interrogators who entered the facility wore civilian clothing.
His attorneys, citing military investigations into abuses at Abu Ghraib and other evidence, say the contractors took control of the prison and issued orders to uniformed military.
"Abu Ghraib was pretty chaotic," said Baher Azmy, legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which brought suits against CACI and L-3 Services. "They were involved in a conspiracy with the military police to abuse our clients."
In legal filings, he and other attorneys say a contract with the military to conduct interrogations does not amount to "a license to torture" — countering CACI's other defense: that it was simply carrying out a government contract.
Military investigations ordered by senior officers found that private contractors at Abu Ghraib "wandered about" unsupervised among Abu Ghraib detainees and that CACI employees were put in positions of authority over soldiers. A report from Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba recommended discipline for two CACI employees, including one who allowed or instructed military police to help in interrogation in a manner that "he clearly knew … equated to physical abuse."
A report by Maj. Gen. George R. Fay said CACI interrogators were not screened by the company and that "little, if any, training on Geneva Conventions was presented to contractor employees." That report cited CACI employees for participating in abuse, including grabbing and pushing a handcuffed detainee off a vehicle, putting a prisoner in a dangerous "stress position" and joining soldiers in using dogs to threaten prisoners.
Singer, the author of "Corporate Warriors," calls the lawsuit "utterly insufficient" given what happened at the prison. Yet, he adds, "that's all we have now."
"When the story of Abu Ghraib is told, you don't want the book to read 'Abu Ghraib happened and dot dot dot, many of the key players were never held accountable,'" he said. "That's not what you want the history books to read."