Justice at Abu Ghraib

Since 9/11, Shereef Akeel has fought for American Muslims; but his biggest case is a class action lawsuit on behalf of the prisoners of Abu Ghraib

Published in 2006 Michigan Super Lawyers — September 2006

As the long chartered flight neared its destination, Shereef Akeel peered out the window at the Iraqi landscape below. He noted a lone road cutting through the desert and tried to imagine what Baghdad would be like. Eventually he saw a caravan of cars and trucks on the pavement below and wondered aloud why everyone was traveling together. “To avoid being hijacked,” an Iraqi on the plane answered.

At that moment the pilot’s voice crackled over the loudspeaker. “Just want to let you guys know that this isn’t going to be a normal landing,” he said calmly. “We’re going to be landing in a spiral fashion to avoid being hit by missiles.”

Akeel looked out the window again, this time with more urgency.

“I knew the trip was going to be dangerous,” he says. “But I never dreamed I’d be helping the pilot spot missiles.”

From the moment Ahmed Esa entered his office on Sept. 12, 2001, Akeel knew he had found his calling. Akeel was a lawyer who focused on everyday issues like leases and insurance claims, and Esa was a veteran welder who had shown up at work the day after 9/11 only to be told he no longer had a job. “Go tell your leader we don’t want you,” his boss allegedly said.

Akeel helped Esa win a settlement, and he started taking more cases of discrimination against Muslim Americans. He fought for a woman who was expelled from dental school. He fought for three Jordanian brothers who were the victims of excessive police force. There was no shortage of clients with claims.

“If you look through American history, there’s always a group of people who get picked on and targeted,” says Akeel. “Today it’s Arab time.”

Not just in America, either. In March 2004, a man Akeel refers to as “Mr. Saleh” also walked into Akeel’s office with a complaint. He had recently been imprisoned, he said. He had been tortured, he said. He gave the name of the prison.

“Abu what?” Akeel asked.

This was a month before the now-infamous photos of torture and abuse were broadcast on 60 Minutes II, and Akeel had no idea what the man was talking about. Suspicious at first, Akeel listened as Saleh cited instances of torture and rape and humiliation. He had witnessed an old man dying from neglect. When Saleh grimly told of being forced to strip down and lie atop another nude man, and having a rope tied around his genitals and then tied to the genitals of several other men, Akeel started to believe. No Muslim, he felt, would freely talk about his own sexual humiliation if it weren’t true.

Saleh’s story had an even sadder twist. Fifteen years earlier, Saleh had been imprisoned in Abu Ghraib for speaking out against Saddam Hussein. Released on amnesty, Saleh fled to Sweden, where he learned the language and became an anti-Hussein activist, appearing on television and radio. He saved nearly $80,000 and returned to Iraq in late 2003 intent on helping rebuild his country.

He never got the chance. As soon as he arrived, he was arrested at a checkpoint and sent back to Abu Ghraib.

“Same prison, different management,” he told Akeel. Saleh said no one questioned him. His money and car were simply seized. He wanted them back.

Akeel’s decision to travel to Baghdad a few months later to interview other Abu Ghraib prisoners did not come easily. He had a wife and four young sons, and a law practice to run, and the situation in Baghdad was worsening. The trip would be risky, even though Akeel, a Muslim of Egyptian descent, could take measures to blend in.

An Iraqi-born childhood acquaintance, Mohammed Alomari, who had recently returned from the warravaged country, counseled against it. “You don’t know what you’ll be getting yourself into,” Alomari said. “Sleep on it and make your decision in the morning.”

Akeel awoke the next morning and, to the surprise of no one, still wanted to go. He owed it to Mr. Saleh.

“There are thousands of attorneys in the Detroit area, and a lot of Muslim attorneys too,” Akeel says. “He could have [gone] anywhere. But he came into my office. I took that very seriously. I felt it was something I had to undertake because it represented everything I believed.”

Akeel grew up in Sterling Heights, the son of an engineer at General Motors. Though he was one of the few Muslims in the neighborhood, he never felt discriminated against and made friends with the German and Polish kids who were prevalent in the neighborhood. The only difference, he says, was his Afro.

At the University of Michigan, Akeel played club soccer and earned a business degree. He got his master’s attending night classes at Wayne State and quickly found a good accounting job. There was one problem. He didn’t feel passionate about what he was doing. One day a co-worker told a story of bolting awake in the middle of the night with an idea of how to save the company $700, and, at that moment, Akeel says, “I realized I didn’t have the passion for accounting.” So, while continuing his accounting job, he went to the Detroit College of Law, where he graduated in 1996. Soon after, Melamed & Dailey hired him to specialize in property insurance.

“We represented the little guy, the homeowner or the storekeeper,” Akeel says. “That role was comfortable for me. If my first job was representing insurance companies, I’m not sure that would have fit in my comfort zone.”

Akeel took to his new job. He put in long hours and didn’t mind. By 2000, he was a name partner.

“It wasn’t any surprise he started doing well right away,” says Eric Sabree, a friend and law school classmate. “We used to talk for hours about a lot of things we wanted to accomplish. Shereef was always very passionate and animated about the law.”

Akeel’s first taste of discrimination law came a few months before 9/11. Afriend referred two Muslim women who had been accused of shoplifting and who were pressured into signing a confession. He helped win a settlement for the women, along with an unexpected benefit. The department store in the case instituted sensitivity training for its employees. Akeel now tries to work a sensitivitytraining initiative into every settlement.

“Of course, the money is important to my clients,” Akeel says. “But this is important to me. So many of the problems our society faces can be solved by education and talking about our differences.”

After completing a missile-free landing in Baghdad, Akeel and Alomari were met at the airport by members of a human rights group, three bodyguards and a translator. To blend in, Akeel had grown a beard and some hair on his usually shaved head, and he left his Nike T-shirts at home.

The two men were then driven to a discreet location, where they set up shop interviewing people who had been held inside Abu Ghraib. Saleh’s case had morphed into something larger — a class action lawsuit representing the Abu Ghraib detainees against CACI International, Inc., and Titan Corporation (now L-3 Communications), two companies that had provided interrogation and translation services inside the prison. Both companies denied any wrongdoing and filed a motion to dismiss, which was denied in court.

Akeel was no longer working alone on the case at this point. He had attracted support from the Center for Constitutional Rights as well as a Philadelphia law firm, Burke Pyle, which specializes in class action lawsuits.

The task of representing foreigners in an American court seemed tricky at first, but Akeel found an old law on which to base his case: the Alien Tort Claim Act, enacted in 1787 to combat piracy. “An alien has a jurisdiction in federal court for laws that violate the norms of international law,” states the law. The torture at Abu Ghraib, Akeel believes, violates the laws of the Geneva Convention. There is even precedent. In December 2004, several Burmese citizens settled with Unocal after the oil company was accused of forcing people into labor in the construction of an oil pipeline.

For two weeks, Akeel and Alomari carefully conducted their interviews. One by one, the detainees told horrific stories — of being photographed in the nude, of being forced to touch other prisoners in a sexual manner, of being subjected to daily torture.

The interviews had a deep impact on Akeel. “I have never been able to understand someone who can look at someone else badly because of the color of their skin or what religion they practice,” he says. “We had people who weren’t treating other people as humans. But those detainees had a face, they had eyes, they had feelings. How can you treat another person like that?”

Akeel continues to visit the Middle East about once a month — though he now conducts detainee interviews in Jordan instead of in Iraq. His own clients now consist of “between 150 and 250” detainees, and he says that number will grow when the lawsuit moves to the discovery stage later this year. He believes the detainees will have their day in federal district court sometime next year.

It’s inevitable that Akeel has attracted some criticism for being involved in such a hot-button topic, but he doesn’t waver in his belief that he’s doing the right thing. He rejects several cases per week that he feels do not have any merit. He also laughs off a charge that he’s the Muslim community’s ambulance chaser.

“I wish they would have had an ambulance at Abu Ghraib,” he says.

Many say Akeel is perfectly suited for his current role. “He’s a very courageous guy,” says Robert Hallmark, a mentor and friend. “I’ve been practicing for 30 years and Shereef reinstilled in me what the law is supposed to be about. The enthusiasm he brings to each case is very admirable.”

In addition to the Abu Ghraib lawsuit, Akeel works on many other cases. In January 2005 he teamed with Glenn Valentine to form Akeel & Valentine, based in Huntington Woods. While Akeel does many of the big-picture cases, Valentine concentrates on landing the billable hours that keep the firm going.

One of Akeel and Valentine’s latest triumphs was helping Steve Elturk, an imam, fight through discriminatory red tape and bring a mosque to the city of Warren. The victory, says Elturk, was another case that helped the firm cement its already solid reputation in the Muslim community.

“He’s built a reputation for standing up for people,” Elturk says. “He will do anything to make sure that justice is served. There’s no doubt that he loves what he’s doing and if we need him, I’m sure he’ll be there for us in the future.”

If his recent travels to the Mideast have been filled with the horrors men can do, Akeel is still buoyed by lessons learned from earlier travels. After graduating from the University of Michigan, he took a tour of Europe, visiting many of his club soccer teammates in their home countries. He visited Scotland, Belgium, Norway, the Netherlands and Finland.

“My first stop was in Scotland,” he remembers. “I visited my teammate there, listened to how they talked, how they lived, what their concerns were.

“After that I went to Belgium and they had a different language and customs but the same concerns. It was the same thing for all my other stops and I started to recognize that wherever you go, it’s all the same. After we cast away our differences, you begin to realize we’re all the same. I think that’s important to remember.”

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