Court Weighs Suit Against Former Somali Leader
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
Should torture victims granted asylum in the U.S. be able to sue their tormentors if they too now live here? That question came before the U.S. Supreme Court today. But some of its conservative justices seemed far more concerned about the torture travails of former Bush administration officials.
NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG: In the 1980s, Somalia was engaged in an ethnic civil war. The government used torture, abduction, summary executions and large scale rape in an attempt to suppress the rebellion. And when the government finally fell, its prime minister, Muhammad Ali Samantar, who'd previously served as the defense minister fled to the U.S. Since 1991, he has lived quietly with his family in suburban Virginia.
But some Somalis who have been granted asylum here want to interrupt that peaceable existence. They sued Samantar for damages under the Torture Victims Protection Act and Samantar sought to block the suit appealing all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Some of those suing Samantar were at the court today, including Aziz Deria, a Portland businessman.
Mr. AZIZ DERIA (Businessman): My father, my younger brother, my cousin has been taken out of our home and they have been killed.
TOTENBERG: Bashe Yousuf granted political asylum after being imprisoned under the old regime and now a U.S. citizen is a computer specialist living in Atlanta. He was held in solitary confinement for six years and more.
Mr. BASHE YOUSUF (Computer Specialist, Atlanta): I was tortured, waterboarded, put in electric shocks and every kind of thing.
TOTENBERG: Yousuf says that when he got out of prison, all of his relatives had fled.
Mr. YOUSUF: They destroyed the all my tribes, the cities, you know, complete cities.
TOTENBERG: He and Mr. Deria say that because Samantar was the defense minister in charge of the military prison where Yousuf and others were held, and because Samantar was later the prime minister, that he was, in Mr. Deria's words, the copilot of a regime that engaged in war crimes. What's more, they say, Samantar is here in the U.S. where they can get at him. The Torture Victims Protection Act signed into law in 1991 was aimed at authorizing such lawsuits.
But Mr. Samantar's lawyer, Shay Dvoretzky told the Supreme Court today that a 1976 law giving foreign states immunity from lawsuit in the U.S. immunizes individuals like his client too, because Samantar's deeds were on behalf of the state. Justice Kennedy: Even if there once was immunity, why wasn't that overwritten by the later enactment of the Torture Victims Protection Act? Answer: Because the torture act is silent about immunity.
Justice Ginsburg: Under your theory, is there any torture suit that would survive? Answer: If the state weighs immunity, it would. Justice Ginsburg, tartly: But that's not going to happen. Justice Ginsburg continued: You say that the officer is the same thing as the state. But this case is seeking money out of the pocket of Samantar and no money from the treasury of Somalia. Answer: Regardless, one nation's courts cannot sit in judgment of another nation's acts. And the basis for liability, asserted in this case, is Samantar's acts on behalf of the state of Somalia.
Justice Scalia: The immunity statute applies to foreign states, but its text, it seems to me, does not include private individuals. Lawyer Dvoretzky contended that the effect of holding former officials liable would be the same as holding the state liable. Representing the Somali refugees, lawyer Patricia Millett told the justices that the Torture Victims Protection Act would be an empty statute if former officials of a foreign state were automatically immune. Chief Justice Roberts: The only way a state can act is through people, and you're saying the state is insulated, but the people who do the acts for the state are not.
Supporting the torture victims today was the Obama administration, represented by Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler. He said there's no reason to grant immunity to an official of a collapsed state that has not functioned as a state in nearly 20 years. Justice Scalia referred to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. A few years ago, a Spanish magistrate allowed a lawsuit to proceed against our secretary of defense and you say that's perfectly okay? Answer: It would not be perfectly okay. Under established international and domestic law, the lawsuit cannot proceed once the U.S. government notifies the Spanish court that the secretary of Defense was acting in his official capacity on behalf of the U.S. government.
And here, the present government of Somalia has not made such a claim about Mr. Samantar. Chief Justice Roberts catching his question in terms of Somalia wondered whether it's appropriate to leave to the State Department the question of whether to, as he put it, hang a former official out to dry. At the conclusion of today's proceedings, Bashe Yousuf told reporters that he was pleased to have had his day in court. He says what he wants is not money, but to hold Samantar accountable. And what if the Supreme Court rules that the suit cannot go forward?
Mr. YOUSUF: If it is, then that's okay with me. I have to accept the rule of the law.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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