After Years of Slammed Doors, Torture Survivors Finally End Impunity Streak

Suleiman Abdullah Salim and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud

As an attorney representing victims of torture, one of the most inspiring things I have ever seen is the sheer determination of survivors standing up and publicly confronting those responsible. That’s why I’m so elated that our clients Suleiman Abdullah Salim, Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, and Obaidullah have surmounted so many obstacles in their long pursuit of justice.

Last week, almost two years after filing their lawsuit, our clients prevailed over the final attempt to keep their claims out of court. And today, these brave men secured a settlement from James Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen, the two psychologists who designed and implemented the CIA torture program that ensnared two of them and killed a relative of the third.

Torture is about trying to break human beings. Torturers inflict suffering with the goal of making prisoners feel such overpowering fear and despair that they cannot resist the torturer’s demands. As documents revealed in this case prove, Mitchell and Jessen specifically designed their torture program for the CIA to inflict “fear and despair” until prisoners became “helpless.”

After torture, survivors are usually left with feelings of trauma and helplessness — just as their torturers intended. Often, torture survivors report feeling worthless and powerless. It takes a lot of courage for anyone who has been so brutally traumatized to stand up to those responsible. But that is what our clients did in seeking accountability in a U.S. court. 

To understand the legal landscape our clients faced with this lawsuit, it’s important to look back at the much longer story of torture accountability. That story, until today, has been one of total impunity.

The Bush administration turned to torture just over 15 years ago. That shameful policy inflicted violence and suffering on hundreds of mostly brown and black Muslim men held in secret prisons around the world. In the years that followed, we and other attorneys have represented a number of survivors seeking accountability. But, every case, without exception, ended the same way: Courts turned survivors away from the courthouse doors. Judges refused even to consider the abuses that government officials and contractors acting in our name inflicted on our fellow human beings.

In ruling after ruling, judges decided that the CIA’s torture program was too secret for our courts, that the Constitution did not protect prisoners of the United States from torture, that torturers at Guantánamo were immune from liability, that government officials who justified and ordered the torture of a U.S. citizen were immune from liability, that contractors involved in torture could not be sued — and on and on, a depressing litany of impunity.

Torture is about trying to break human beings.

Against this backdrop of despair, our clients stood up. Last year, Mitchell and Jessen argued that torture was a “political decision” on which courts cannot pass judgment. But our clients prevailed. In January, Mitchell and Jessen tried a different tack, arguing that a 2006 law prevented the court from deciding the case. Again, our clients prevailed. This summer, Mitchell and Jessen argued one final time that they could not be liable for the torture inflicted on our clients because they were “simply doing business.” Once more, our clients prevailed.

As Mohamed recently reminded us, “Keep in mind that when we started this lawsuit, I didn’t expect it to go this far, to get to this excellent level.” But he stood up anyway. He and Suleiman and Obaidullah each flew thousands of miles to tell their stories. They endured depositions and medical exams. And they prevailed over every obstacle.

As a result, our clients secured multiple court decisions cementing the rights of torture survivors to seek justice from those responsible. They forced hundreds of pages of formerly secret documents into the light. For the first time ever, the psychologists and top CIA officials were made to answer questions, under oath, from attorneys representing torture survivors. Our clients’ stories, and much of the broader CIA torture story, are in the public domain.

Justice can be a long time coming. But Mohamed, Suleiman, and Obaidullah remind me of why we keep fighting for accountability against what can feel like insurmountable odds. Now they want to turn to healing, and we can get closer to finally turning the page on torture. Now torturers who think they can hide from the courts know that impunity is not guaranteed.

Accountability is a process. Recovery is a process. Survival is a process. And today was a good day.

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Anonymous

ACLU....American Civil Liberties Union. Just checking. American Civil Liberties. So your clients are American? Stand for all Americans? Represent the average America? Or are they tied to actions that resulted in the deaths of Americans? Sleep well tonight knowing that you keep attacking the ones protecting your right to "fight for the little guy"....even if that little guy is a known foreign terrorist.

Anonymous

The ACLU stands up for everyone's rights to free speech and liberty, including those some might find despicable (like neo-nazi's). That is because they defend american values. In this case though, the victims were not terrorists.

Simon

So Anonymous, you're embarrassed to put your name out there? Why is that?
It doesn't matter who the ACLU represented in this case or where their nationality. What matters is that the US used illegal torture methods to coerce people, in violation of US standards of justice and legality. The ACLU is protecting US ideals and that's what's important.

netslefj

No, the ACLU is not attacking the ones protecting you. They are attacking those whose excesses endanger all of us, and especially our troops overseas, by inviting an international abandonment of human rights standards. And please recall that the US govt. swept up many innocent people in its wholesale round-ups of Muslim men after 9/11.

Anonymous

Look forward to see them driving in the streets of Barcelona or else where in Europe soon.

Ibrahim

*yawn* They could also detonate bombs inside places of worships in Minnesota or come from Ohio and plow through folks in Charlottesville. I guess anything is possible.

Anonymous

How is there accountability if the case ended in a confidential settlement before there was a trial?

Philip S. Zivnuska

Bravo ACLU! Thank you Mohamed, Suleiman and Obaidullah. Thank you for defending American values from those who would betray them. Torture is not American. Never was and never will be. You gentlemen are more human and more humane than Mitchell and Jessen.

Sarah Murray

I second Philip Zivnuska's comments. Thank you for opposing a practice that betrays our dearest American values to no end and for no benefit except to create more fear and trauma in the world! All of the evidence shows that torture does not result in useful information or help defend our country or our citizens and residents. That's why "Mad Dog" Mattis opposes its use - he's a true warrior who wants to do what works, not what hurts. It's a testament to these men that their reaction to receiving torture and unfair treatment was not to lash out with violence, but to take the U.S. at our word, that we value the rule of law and offer a forum for justice that is open to all. Thanks to the ACLU for helping to keep that American promise real for thousands of people.

Anonymous

I know that taxpayers paid the lawyer fees for Jessen and Mitchell, but does anyone know who paid the settlement--the psychologists or US taxpayers?

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