By William Fisher
The Supreme Court agreed yesterday with a group of 19 torture survivors, torture survivor support and recovery organizations, religious and human rights groups, that a former Somali prime minister is not protected from a lawsuit in the U.S. for alleged torture and human rights abuses.
The ruling is a major victory for five former Somali citizens who charge that they and their families were tortured by Somali officials. They sued Mohamed Ali Samantar, seeking financial damages.
From 1980 until 1990, Samantar served as vice president, defense minister and prime minister under the brutal regime of President Mohamed Siad Barre.
The lead plaintiff, Barre Yousuf, described the killings and abuse carried out by Somali troops. He says, "I was tortured with an electric shock and waterboarded."
He and other Somalis sued Samantar under the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991. But a federal judge dismissed the suit because the claim conflicted with a law that grants immunity to foreign states.
Their attorney praised Tuesday's ruling.
"We are very thrilled with the court's decision today," Pamela Merchant, executive director of the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), told the Los Angeles Times. CJA represents the Somali plaintiffs.
She said, "Faced with a choice between accountability and immunity, the Supreme Court squarely came down in favor of accountability. It means that our clients and their families, who are victims of torture, rape and murder, will now be able to hold Mr. Mohamed Samantar, the man who is responsible for these horrific actions, accountable."
Samantar denies being responsible for torture and says his government was fighting a civil war against dissident groups.
It is unclear whether yesterday’s ruling will signal a green light for other plaintiffs to sue former officials for torture and abuse committed by other foreign regimes. The U.S. has not been willing to allow prosecutions of ex-officials of friendly states to go forward.
Justice John Paul Stevens, who will retire after the current term, stressed that the court was deciding only a narrow question. Even in Samantar's case, the former prime minister "may have other valid defenses to the grave charges against him," he said.
A lawyer and leading politician, plaintiff Barre Yousuff had refused to support the government of President Siad Barre, which came to power in 1969. Samantar was detained without charge or trial almost continuously for 20 years.
He was one of the longest held prisoners of conscience known to Amnesty International (AI), which continued to campaign for his release.
Reuters reports that the five plaintiffs do not claim that Samantar personally committed the atrocities or that he was directly involved. But they said the Somali intelligence agencies and the military police under his command engaged in the killings, rapes and torture, including the use of electric shocks, of civilians.
Samantar has been a Virginia resident since 1997. The plaintiffs – some of who are now naturalized U.S. citizens -- brought the lawsuit in 2004 under a U.S. law called the Torture Victim Protection Act.
While that suit was dismissed, a U.S. appeals court reinstated it. It was that
decision that prompted Samantar to appeal to the Supreme Court. Justice Stevens agreed with the appeals court.
Somalia, considered a failed state, has been without an effective government since warlords overthrew former dictator Barre in 1991. A decade of civil conflicts has followed. Most recently, al Qaeda-linked Islamists have waged an insurgency against a U.N.-backed interim government.
Several prominent U.S. human rights groups joined an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief in the case. They included Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First, two of the more prominent U.S. rights groups.
In their brief, they argued that when Congress passed the Torture Victim Protection Act in 1991, it intended to allow survivors of torture to sue former officials of foreign governments in US courts, on the understanding that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) would not bar such suits.
A decision to apply FSIA immunity to Samantar could permit other authoritarian governments to immunize the most serious acts of abuse by their former officials.