Global Policy Forum

Defense Contractor Awards Abu Ghraib Torture Victims Meager $5 Million Settlement


Engility Holdings Inc., a US military contractor, has paid $5.28 million for its role in the abuse of prisoners at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The money will be distributed amongst 72 prisoners who suffered mistreatment, marking a rare instance of reparation for the victims of private security contractors’ misconduct. Critics, however, have questioned the appropriateness of the sum, which pales in comparison to monetary settlements negotiated with US victims of similar mistreatment. While some are hopeful that this settlement sets a precedent that will ensure greater accountability amongst private military contractors, the settlement’s relatively small size and the industry’s continued resistance against legal liability for their behavior in conflict zones is cause for continued concern.

January 9, 2013


A US contractor responsible for torturing detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq has paid 71 former detainees $5.28 million in compensation, a meager amount compared to similar cases in the US.

Between 2003 and 2007, the prisoners were subjected to mock executions, severely beaten, stripped naked, threatened with rape and forced to drink water until vomiting blood.

“Private military contractors played a serious but often under-reported role in the worst abuses at Abu Ghraib,” Baher Azmy, the legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, tells the Associated Press. “We are pleased that this settlement provides some accountability for one of those contractors and offers some measure of justice for the victims.”

The Virginia-based defense contractor Engility Holdings Inc. was heavily involved in the treatment of the Iraqi detainees and agreed to pay a total of $5.28 million in payments to 71 former inmates because of it during a deal reached last year. Only now, however, has the AP become aware of the details of the settlement.

L-3 Services Inc., a subsidiary of Engility, sent more than 6,000 private translators to Iraq and “permitted scores of its employees to participate in torturing and abusing prisoners over an extended period of time throughout Iraq,” states the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in Greenbelt, Md. in 2008. The company “willfully failed to report L-3 employees’ repeated assaults and other criminal conduct by its employees to the United States or Iraq authorities.”

One inmate says he was subjected to a mock execution, in which contractors pointed a gun at his head and pulled the trigger for the entertainment of the staffers. Another was knocked unconscious by being repeatedly slammed against a wall. One man says he was stripped naked with his hands and legs chained together, fearing rape. Some of the inmates claim the contractors did indeed rape them, after which they were beaten and left naked for long periods of time.

In 2004, photographs were released picturing naked inmates piled on top of each other, hooded and wired for electric shocks. A military investigation that year discovered 44 incidents of detainee abuse at the prison, but did nothing to stop L-3 Services from working for the federal government.

But it wasn’t until 2008 that a lawsuit was filed against the defense contractor and until 2012 that the victims were compensated. Such compensation is rare: the US Army has been unable to document a single US government payment for prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, and other defense contractors accused of being involved have refused to make settlements. The Virginia-based company CACI International Inc., which provided interrogators to the US military during the Iraq War, is facing a separate lawsuit by four Iraqis who accused the company’s employees of subjecting them to torture. CACI is taking the case to trial, claiming the “plaintiffs bring claims seeking money damages for their detention and treatment while in the custody of the US military in the midst of a belligerent occupation in Iraq.”

Although monetary compensation in such cases is rare and Engility has been praised for its settlement, the contractor’s payments to the victims are scant in comparison to settlements made in the US. If divided equally, the settlement equates to about $74,000 per detainee. Azmy declined to tell AP how the money was distributed between the victims.

But in the US, victims of mistreatment are often awarded hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in compensation. The wrongful arrest of 55-year-old Doug Miller and his 30-year-old son in Palm Beach County, Fl., ended up in a $600,000 payment. An elderly couple in Baltimore received $500,000 for being falsely arrested for kidnapping their grandchild.

Settlements for prison abuse in the US have been even higher: an inmate who had his head slammed against a cement wall by a corrections officer in a New Jersey state prison received a $1.5 million settlement for his mistreatment. In Virginia, nine women who sued a state prison for sexual harassment were paid $10 million – more than $1 million each.

Even in cases where hundreds of prisoners are involved, the compensation numbers are higher than those paid to the Iraqi victims. The state of Michigan paid $100 million to about 500 female prisoners who said they were sexually assaulted by prison guards, which equates to about $200,000 per victim, if divided equally.

The average $74,000 compensation for each Abu Ghraib victim of rape, torture, death threats and physical harm seems almost inconsiderable in comparison, especially given the high levels of torture the Iraqi prisoners were subjected to. And many more Iraqi victims of abuses are unlikely to receive any sort of compensation at all.

“No court in the United States has allowed aliens – detained on the battlefield or in the course of postwar occupation and military operations by the US military – to seek damages for their detention,” CACI told the federal court.


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