Attorney Susan L. Burke has worked on lawsuits that sought to change the mental health system in Washington, D.C., improve transit access for the disabled in Maryland and free Chinese dissidents.
Now, with the help of a Detroit attorney and others, she’s spearheading an unusual racketeering lawsuit accusing civilian contractors at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison of conspiring to torture prisoners to boost corporate profits from military payments.
“I find it particularly painful that I have to work in our country on our government,” Burke said from her top-floor law office. “It’s a really sad state of affairs.”
It was an anonymous official in a news story that first set off alarm bells for her.
“If you don’t violate someone’s human rights some of the time, you probably aren’t doing your job,” the U.S. official was quoted as saying.
That and other remarks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks convinced her, she said, that U.S. support for international law and human rights was being abandoned. It sent her to the nonprofit Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, which has pioneered the use of lawsuits in U.S. courts over alleged abuses committed overseas.
“She was incredibly upset by it, really disturbed,” said center President Michael Ratner, who said he was surprised that someone from a substantial Philadelphia law firm would be interested in the case. “This was, to her, America gone off the charts in some way. And she wanted to do something about it.”
The legal team behind the lawsuit includes Detroit attorney Shereef Akeel, who has gone to Iraq to collect evidence from detainees; Joseph Margulies, of the University of Chicago law school; and University of Pennsylvania professor Susan J. Feathers, whose law students have been helping research issues related to the case.
The lawsuit, filed this summer on behalf of anonymous detainees, alleges brutal acts of torture and violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, the 1970 law often used by prosecutors to go after mobsters. It names as defendants three people cited in the Army’s investigative report and seeks payments for alleged victims and a ban on future government contracts for San Diego-based Titan Corp. and CACI International Inc., of Arlington, Va.
Both firms have vehemently denied the allegations. Titan called the lawsuit “frivolous” and said it never had control of prisoners or their treatment. CACI called the accusations “ill-informed, slanderous and malicious.”
Even in Burke’s firm, Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads, chairman Stephen A. Madva said there “was and continues to be misgivings” among the 70 partners about the suit, stemming both from political differences and fears of being seen as unpatriotic in wartime.