Lawyers for inmates of Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay filed a lawsuit in Germany on Tuesday against outgoing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, hoping his resignation and testimony from a former general will help to have him investigated for war crimes.
German federal prosecutors said they would examine the case. Although the lawyers who filed it acknowledged while there was little chance of seeing Rumsfeld in a German jail, the point was simply to increase the pressure on top brass they say are culpable.
"We are not expecting that Rumsfeld will appear in a court, but we are hoping investigators will begin looking into the case," said Wolfgang Kaleck, a German lawyer involved in the suit.
The 220-page suit, which also names 13 other U.S. officials, was sent to federal prosecutors under a German law that allows the prosecution of war crimes regardless of where they were committed. It alleges that Rumsfeld personally ordered and condoned torture.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said U.S. officials had not seen the 220-page complaint but said media reports suggested it was "frivolous."
"Abu Ghraib is something that the U.S. government has investigated very thoroughly," Whitman said, noting more than a dozen probes as well as hearings before Congress. "The appropriate individuals have been held accountable."
Ex-general to testify against former superiors
Former U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, the one-time commander of all U.S. military prisons in Iraq, said she would testify against her superiors because only a handful of low-ranking soldiers have been convicted over the abuse at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib jail.
Karpinski, who was relieved of her command and demoted to colonel last year, said she wanted to "be a voice for my soldiers."
"They were tried and convicted in the world court before they ever set foot in any courtroom ... while people who are far more culpable and responsible have walked away blameless," Karpinski said during a presentation of the case in Berlin.
There have been 11 convictions and about a dozen courts-martial in the United States related to Abu Ghraib. Critics complain that senior officers and policymakers escaped punishment.
Suit on behalf of 12 captives
The suit is brought on behalf of 12 alleged torture victims — 11 Iraqis held at Abu Ghraib and Mohamad al-Qahtani, a Saudi being held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who has been identified by the U.S. as a would-be participant in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Captured in December 2001 along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, al-Qahtani would not crack under normal questioning, so Rumsfeld approved harsher methods, according to the testimony before Congress.
After FBI agents raised concerns, military investigators began reviewing the case and in July 2005 said they confirmed abusive and degrading treatment that included forcing al-Qahtani to wear a bra, dance with another man, stand naked in front of women and behave like a dog. Still, the Pentagon determined "no torture occurred."
German prosecutors already declined to investigate a more limited suit in 2005, arguing that it was up to the U.S. to hold any inquiry and that there were no indications U.S. authorities or courts would refrain from doing so.
Since then, there have been "no efforts in the United States to go up the chain of command — they've basically been given impunity from any investigation or prosecution," said Michael Ratner, president of New York's Center for Constitutional Rights, which is behind the litigation.
The attorneys think they have a better case this time, armed with documents from 2005 congressional hearings on the al-Qahtani case. They argue that Rumsfeld's resignation last week means prosecutors may be under less political pressure to shun the case.
Karpinski says she did not know about prisoner abuse and asserts that higher-ups encouraged cruel treatment. She said the now-notorious photos of prisoners being degraded in Abu Ghraib were staged at the behest of interrogators and were intended for use in pressurizing other prisoners.
Interrogation techniques were changed "incrementally over time to prevent people from seeing what was actually approved and permitted," she said.
"When they thought that Janis Karpinski was getting too close to uncovering this information or these events, they took me out of the equation."
Others also named
In addition to Rumsfeld, the suit names U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, former CIA Director George Tenet, former commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez and eight others, alleging that they either ordered, aided, or failed to prevent war crimes.
The lawyers said the case could not be brought with the International Criminal Court, because the United States is not a member, and could not be pursued through the U.N. because the U.S. has veto power.
Kaleck said the suit's backers would appeal if prosecutors refuse to take up the case, and raised the prospect of further attempts in other European countries.