By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - A federal appeals court has revived a lawsuit against CACI International Inc by four former Iraqi detainees who claimed the U.S. defense contractor's employees directed their torture at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, said the claims had sufficient ties to the United States to be heard in U.S. courts. It said a lower court judge erred in concluding he lacked jurisdiction because the alleged abuses, dating from 2003 and 2004, occurred in Iraq.
Writing for a unanimous three-judge 4th Circuit panel, Circuit Judge Barbara Milano Keenan also said Congress has a "distinct interest" in not turning the United States into a "safe harbor" for torturers.
Monday's decision has the potential to expand legal liability for contractors who work with and undertake sensitive tasks on behalf of U.S. troops outside the country.
The lawsuit accused CACI employees who conducted interrogation and other services at Abu Ghraib of directing or encouraging torture, in part to "soften up" detainees for questioning, while managers were accused of covering it up.
Photos depicting abuse of Abu Ghraib detainees emerged in 2004. Some detainees claimed they endured physical and sexual abuse, infliction of electric shocks, and mock executions.
"Anyone who commits egregious human rights violations should be held accountable, and this decision puts U.S. companies on notice that they could still face liability," Martin Flaherty, a professor at Fordham University School of Law who signed a brief supporting the detainees, said in an interview.
CACI is based in Arlington, Virginia, and has called the lawsuit baseless. General counsel William Koegel declined to discuss Monday's decision.
At issue in the lawsuit was the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 U.S. law often used to pursue claims over human rights abuses.
The U.S. Supreme Court in April 2013 narrowed the law's reach, saying it was presumed to cover conduct in the United States, and that violations elsewhere must "touch and concern" U.S. territory "with sufficient force" for people to sue.
In finding that the alleged Abu Ghraib violations did, the 4th Circuit pointed to several factors.
Among these were CACI's having won U.S. government permission to conduct interrogations and obtain security clearances, and allegations that CACI managers in the United States acquiesced in, or concealed, misconduct.
The appeals court did not rule on the claims' merits. It returned the case to U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee in Alexandria, Virginia, who had dismissed it in June 2013.
Monday's decision "offers a chance for real accountability of companies toward victims of torture and war crimes," Baher Azmy, a lawyer representing the detainees, said in an interview. "It breathes life into the Alien Tort Statute."
The judges on the panel were appointed to their current positions by President Barack Obama.
The case is Al Shimari et al v. CACI Premier Technology Inc et al, 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 13-1937.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Additional reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Alden Bentley, Bernadette Baum and Tom Brown)