In the wake of 9/11, civil rights and employment lawyer Shereef H. Akeel, of Akeel & Valentine in Troy, Michigan, found his calling representing Muslim Americans who had been victims of discrimination. But his most notable case might have been a class-action lawsuit on behalf of detainees held in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Akeel described the case to us in the 2006 edition of Michigan Super Lawyers Magazine.
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.
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.”