Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
August 25, 2004
Phila. lawyer leads a fight to right abuses in Iraq

Susan L. Burke was irked two years ago after reading an article about the interrogation of suspected terrorists. The Philadelphia lawyer was particularly piqued by a comment attributed to an anonymous interrogator:

"If you don't violate someone's human rights some of the time, you probably aren't doing your job," the Washington Post quoted the U.S. official as saying.

Concerned that the U.S. military was torturing detainees in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, Burke began researching legal means to force the government to toe the line. She enlisted the help of some associates, along with a team of University of Pennsylvania law students.

Burke now heads a seemingly unlikely alliance dedicated to righting the wrongs of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq.

"It sounds like an easy legal question, but it's legally difficult," said Burke, 42, a partner at the old-line firm of Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads. The big hurdle was how to challenge the government, which is immune from most lawsuits.

A crack appeared in the government's legal armor this spring when the Abu Ghraib scandal erupted. Reports implicated interrogators employed by private contractors, which have less legal protection from lawsuits than the government itself.

Six weeks later, Burke led a group of lawyers from four states in filing a federal class-action suit against CACI International of Arlington, Va., and Titan Corp. of San Diego, contractors who supplied interrogators and translators at the Abu Ghraib prison.

"Our lawsuit really alleges a conspiracy," Burke said. "We're essentially focusing on the government acting in cahoots with these private parties."

Titan and CACI have denied any involvement in illegal acts. "The suit alleges a plethora of heinous acts that the company rejects and denies in their totality," CACI said in a statement.

The lawsuit has raised some eyebrows in the legal world, partly because it relies upon the Alien Tort Claims Act, a law employed by human-rights activists to sue corporations for abuses abroad.

It also generated some discomfort at Burke's Center City law firm.

"At first you think - cool, who can be for torture?" said Stephen A. Madva, chairman of the 70-partner firm. But some partners worried that the firm might be portrayed as standing on the wrong side of the war on terror.

In the end, the partners gave their support to Burke.

"She's not an opportunist, not a media hound," said Madva, who also called her "a heat-seeking missile."

Burke's team now comprises a venerable Philadelphia law firm, a prominent New York human-rights organization, and student researchers at the Penn law school. The group also includes an Egyptian American lawyer in Michigan whose clients include many victims of the alleged abuse.

"It's very much a cooperative, collaborative arrangement - let's just get these wrongs redressed," Burke said. "In a large case like this, you need a lot of people just to review boxes and boxes of documents."

Susan J. Feathers, Penn law school's assistant dean who heads its Public Service Program, said the students would function as a "background research team" for Burke.

"It's pretty exciting stuff to be working on this, such cutting-edge litigation," said Feathers, whose program helps students fulfill a requirement to perform public-interest work.

Burke comes to the lawsuit from an unusual angle. After spending much of her career in Washington defending health-care companies, she moved to Philadelphia in 2002 to head Tenet Healthcare Corp.'s regional law office. The administrative job did not suit her, and she left after less than a year to return to work as a litigator.

The daughter of an Army artillery officer, Burke has been involved with human-rights organizations such as Amnesty International since attending Catholic University of America School of Law.

"There's nothing really unique in my background," she said. "I've always felt this way. I think any right-minded person should feel this way. Shouldn't we all be against torture?"

Looking for allies, Burke contacted the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York this year. The nonprofit organization, which specializes in civil liberties litigation, pioneered the use of lawsuits against abuses committed overseas.

At the time, the center's lawyers were working on behalf of prisoners detained at Guantanamo Bay. Its resources were stretched thin, so it welcomed Burke's offer to help.

"This is a major case," said Michael Ratner, the center's president. "We couldn't have done it on our own."

After photographs from Abu Ghraib were broadcast in April, the lawsuit's target shifted to Iraq. The lawyers found a wealth of information in reports on Abu Ghraib by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, which said CACI and Titan employees participated in the abuses.

The Taguba report was the first to comprehensively document conditions at Abu Ghraib, citing "numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuse." The Taguba report accused a CACI employee of instructing military police to use unauthorized interrogation techniques - allegations that CACI denies.

The suit, filed in Titan's hometown of San Diego, accuses the two companies of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), alleging they engaged in a range of "heinous and illegal acts" to obtain more contracts from the government.

The suit also alleges violations of the Alien Tort Claims Act, an 18th-century law that has been used in recent decades by foreign nationals to sue American companies for violations that occurred overseas. Conservative commentators have argued for limiting claims under the act, saying the law is being abused to the detriment of American business.

The suit contains numerous allegations collected from Iraqis by Shereef Hadi Akeel, a Michigan lawyer originally from Egypt. Like Burke, he had gone to the center in New York earlier in the year seeking to form an alliance.

The allegations are graphic: Iraqis allege they were beaten, kicked, stripped, raped, urinated upon, and set upon by dogs. One says he was forced to watch as his father was killed.

Haidar Muhsin Saleh, a Swede of Iraqi origin, alleges he left Iraq after Saddam Hussein's police imprisoned and tortured him in Abu Ghraib - only to be arrested, robbed, imprisoned and tortured upon his return last year.

Though the suit repeats allegations contained in the Taguba report, it does not specifically allege that individual Titan and CACI employees actually abused the prisoners. Burke says the lawyers will find evidence during discovery.

In denying the accusations, CACI has threatened to bring sanctions against the lawyers, accusing them of bringing a frivolous lawsuit.

Burke is dead serious.

"People have been tortured," she said. "We want to get them redress and... we want to get it done quickly, so that they understand that America as a whole does not condone this. This can do a lot to restore the credibility of the United States." home page   
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