The Court Must Defend Torture Victims' Rights

The Court decides this week whether former foreign government officials who ordered torture are subject to suit in the U.S.. There is no question that Congress intended for the answer to be yes.
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Today, the United States Supreme Court hears oral arguments in a case whose outcome will either uphold or nullify the rights of victims of foreign torture, including U.S. soldiers, to sue under American law.

The Court should take this opportunity to reaffirm America's commitment to human rights and its opposition to torture.

The case involves, among others, two Somalian refugees, now American citizens, who fled the brutal Siad Barre regime in the 1990s. They sued a former official of the regime living in Alexandria, Va. The Barre regime was one of the most violent and repressive regimes in the world.

Bashe Abdi Yousuf, a young businessman, claims to have been tortured and kept in solitary confinement for six years. Aziz Mohamed Deria is representing his father and brother who were allegedly kidnapped by the regime and disappeared.

They are suing Mohamed Samantar, a current resident of Fairfax, VA, and former Minister of Defense of Somalia under Siad Barre. Under Samantar's watch, the regime was responsible for the killing, rape, and torture of tens of thousands of Somalis. After the Barre regime fell in the early 1990's, Samantar, fled to Europe and then to the United States.

The Somalians, who are represented by the Center for Justice and Accountability, are seeking redress under the 1991 Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which bars safe haven in this country for foreign practitioners of torture by subjecting them to U.S. laws against torture.

Samantar's defense is that as a former government official, he is protected by doctrine of sovereign immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

Samantar's argument directly contradicts Congress's intent and purpose for enacting the TVPA. There is no question that Congress wrote the law to hold former foreign government officials like Samantar accountable for their human rights abuses.

In fact, Congress was acutely aware of many government-perpetrated human rights violations during the TVPA's legislative process -- including those of the Barre regime. For example, one Senate Report recounts the extrajudicial killing of approximately 60-100 spectators at a soccer match by army units and presidential guards and the torture of "prisoners held by security forces". Another report details the summary execution of "at least 46 young men, mainly Isaaks," at a beach and complaints of torture being implemented against detainees.

Ironically, almost two decades after Congress passed the TVPA, the Court will for the first time consider whether former foreign government officials who ordered extrajudicial killing or torture are subject to suit in the United States under the TVPA. There is no dispute that Congress intended for the answer to be yes.

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