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Lawyer Of The Year 2004

Shereef Akeel - Huntington Woods

By Amanda L. Aranowski

This attorney has worked tirelessly to help tortured Iraqis put Abu Ghraib horrors behind them.

Born: 1965
Education: Michigan State University College of Law (1996); Wayne State University, MBA (1992); University of Michigan (1987)
Admitted to Bar: 1996
Experience: Partner, Melamed, Dailey & Akeel (2000 – present); associate, Melamed, Dailey & Akeel (1996 – 2000); accounting supervisor, Michigan Basic Property Insurance (1991 – 96); staff accountant, A & A Management (1989 – 91)
Legal Affiliations: Michigan Trial Lawyers Association; Michigan Association of Certified Public Accountants

U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark once pronounced, "A right is not what someone gives you; it's what no one can take from you."

As a civil rights lawyer representing those whose rights have been ignored, Clark's words could stand as Huntington Woods attorney Shereef Akeel's professional credo.

After doing mostly property insurance work and personal injury, Akeel broke into the civil rights domain after 9-11 — "basically it turned my practice upside down" — and it was just one day later when a man with a discrimination case knocked on his door.

As Akeel began delving into the employment arena, he also started representing victims of workplace and student discrimination, police mistreatment, and other civil rights matters.

Then, in March 2004, Akeel was asked to represent a former detainee of Abu Ghraib prison who claimed that he had been abused.

And while Sept. 11 may have turned his practice upside down, with the breaking of the Abu Ghraib scandal Akeel noted his practice has been completely overwhelmed.

"This is a reason why you go to law school — to right a wrong, to seek legal redress," he asserted.

In June, with the aid of a legal team that includes the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, Akeel brought a class action against CACI International, Inc., and Titan Corp. — two agencies hired by the U.S. to provide interrogation services in Iraq. The team is representing former detainees of Abu Ghraib prison as well as other detention centers.

Akeel's case, Saleh v. Titan, alleges acts of torture, as well as violations of Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and the Alien Tort Claims Act, which, according to Akeel, are crucial to the case.

Akeel admits he is grateful for the exposure Saleh v. Titan is receiving.

"That's the one silver lining in this case — you see the democratic process work," he explained.

* * *

Q. You started out doing property insurance, contracts and personal injury matters. How did you transition to civil rights law?

A. Basically, Sept. 11 turned my practice upside down. On Sept. 12, a Yemeni individual who was in a place of employment for 15 years, was fired. His employer had told him, "Get out of here. Go tell your leader we don't want you." He came to my office and told me about what happened. I had no clue about employment and civil rights law, but I was so outraged by what happened I said I would do what I could to help this man.

That was my break-in case and we were able to reach a good settlement. I started getting into employment law, and then I started representing students who were getting discriminated against from universities.

I had become well-versed in civil rights issues, and then in March of this year, Mr. Saleh walked into my office. He said he was in Abu Ghraib prison, and I replied, "What is that?" He told me some of what he was subjected to, and I was shocked and bewildered. Saleh said he was a prisoner under Saddam Hussein's regime and that he was tortured because he was against the Baath party. Saleh was pro-American and he wanted democracy, so he gets tortured by Saddam, he gets released, and then the Gulf War came. He was passing out flyers to Iraqi soldiers saying, "Please do not fight. The Americans are your friend."

Saddam then put a price on Saleh's head, so he sought refugee status with his family in Saudi Arabia. He ended up in Sweden, talking on TV against Saddam. He went back to Iraq with his savings of $79,000 and he was stopped. But they didn't investigate who Saleh is. The men who pulled him over put a hood over Saleh's head, sent him to Abu Ghraib and tortured him for two months.

Q. The media reports on the abuses at Abu Ghraib were shocking and quite graphic.

A. The things Saleh told me they made him do astonished me. I could not believe it and it didn't make sense. He was told to tie a rope to his genitals, with other men, and then they push one man. At that time, none of this had come out. It was so outrageous but, at the same time, how could someone make something like this up?

Q. What happened next?

A. Under the Foreign Military Claim Act, a foreigner or an alien can file a claim against the Army for wrongs committed to them so we filed a military claim with the U.S. Army to try to get Saleh's money back. That received some notice.

Another family from Dearborn told me they have five members in Abu Ghraib, one of whom died. He was a 63-year-old man who was stripped naked and made to stand out in the cold at night. They put cold water over him and he was beaten while his son watched. The man came in and three days later he died.

During that time, the Abu Ghraib abuse photos came out and validated the things that had happened. I had no clue — I was doing my own thing and, all of a sudden, this man from Abu Ghraib walks into our office and tells us all of these things. My life has completely been overwhelmed because of the Abu Ghraib scandal. We filed a class action on behalf of all of the plaintiffs. Right now, there is an estimate of 50,000 to 100,000 detainees.

I'm getting cases every day now because we have a "ground presence" there. We have two people conducting interviews each day, and the information is free flowing.

Q. You recently took a trip to Iraq. Can you tell me about that?

A. I needed to talk to the people face-to-face. It was uncovered that there were more than 2,000 photos that had not yet been disclosed. I wanted to know what was in those photos. If we exercised necessary precautions, the benefits of going to help far outweighed the risk.

It was profound what we found there. We were able to talk to human rights organizations that were in contact with the detainees who had been released. We interviewed three or four detainees on a daily basis. We interviewed doctors, lawyers, tradespersons, elderly persons, young boys and women who were detained — from across the spectrum of Iraq, from Fallujah to Najaf, from the south to the north — to get an idea of what happened.

We found out it was not just Abu Ghraib that was involved, but more than 23 detention centers. We couldn't believe the things they were telling us. Our presence reflected sincerity to them. Skepticism was reduced, their guards were down and they were able to give us information about what happened.

By the end of the day, you just don't understand how this can happen, and you get more convinced that you need to do something. Once you hear this, you don't even think about the risk — you think about what you can do to help.

We found the means to do it. The Alien Tort Claim Act (ATCA) states that courtroom doors in the U.S. are open for aliens to bring cases of action for wrongs committed by U.S. companies.

Q. The ATCA isn't your only ammunition — you've filed a RICO claim. Under RICO you have to have an enterprise — that would be the two companies you are suing, right?

A. Exactly. CACI, a private security firm, furnished the interrogators. Titan furnished the translators and they formed what is known as "Team Titan" — an interrogator, a translator and an MP [military police]. They would torture or interrogate a detainee, but the lines were fuzzy. Sometimes the translators actually did the beating, and in one instance the interpreter raped an individual.

There was a specific design to mask their identities. They would take off their jackets and name tags so you wouldn't know who it was, and then they would put hoods over the detainees' heads. This is the challenge we are confronted with.

RICO was used against the Mafia to hold those responsible who engaged in criminal activity for profit. The magnitude of this case is going to make the mob thing look like small potatoes.

Q. What damages are you seeking? How can you come up with a dollar amount?

A. All I can tell you is that we are doing what we can to indicate that the value of an Iraqi person is equal to an American. All humans are equal. What's nice is the ATCA recognizes that. America has a process to vindicate a foreigner's rights. That should, hopefully, send a message to the world — that democracy is here to stay and this is what America is about.

A recent Supreme Court case validates that aliens can bring claims, but they have to be of such magnitude that they violate the norms of international law, the Geneva Convention.

Q. How will the contractors be held accountable?

A. Civil litigation through ACTA is the mechanism to hold those people accountable. Before [Ambassador L. Paul] Bremer left Iraq, he passed Order 17, which gives complete immunity to contractors and military from liability in Iraqi courts. They cannot be court-martialed by the U.S. Military because they are not military people.

Q. What impact has this had on you?

A. I have had nightmares from this. You tend to personalize some of these things — what if it happened to you? Your son? Your grandpa or grandma? You get queasy and you cannot understand how this can happen.

The only way to deal with it is to exercise the law that's available to right the wrong. That's the only way we are able to handle this situation — to be able to find a way to right a wrong for these people.

Q. What is your ultimate hope for the outcome of this case?

A. To get compensation for the Iraqis who were subjected to those unspeakable crimes, and to hold those companies responsible for their actions. We are telling the Iraqi people that if we prevail in this, we would have proven that the system is working, that democracy is in full force, and that there is a mechanism to right a wrong.

I want to be able to go back to them and say, "I am sorry for what happened to you. Here is what we did to hold those accountable and to try to provide some legal redress for you."

The one silver lining in this case is that you see the democratic process work. There were people classified as dying from natural causes, and we pointed out that their death certificates said they died from natural causes — in fact, they were tortured to death.

Another thing we are pointing out is when government is subcontracting out an inherent government function — like military intelligence gathering — a problem may present itself. I'll tell you why: CACI and Titan are not there to serve the nation's best interest. They are not just there to promote democracy. They are there because they have a contract and it calls for them to get information through interrogation. In order to get information, they will interrogate people more to show results and to get more contracts. The contractors are serving the shareholders to maximize the bottom line, which is to get more contracts. You want to get more money, you want to get more profits, so you may engage in more torture to show results to get the next contract.

© 2004 Lawyers Weekly Inc., All Rights Reserved.


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