At the start of its new Term this month, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will hear arguments in Case No. 08-1555, Samantar v. Yousuf. The decision represents a 1st for the nongovernmental organization that I head, the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability.
In 2004, CJA and and pro bono co-counsel at the law firm of Cooley Godward Kronish sued Somali General Mohamed Ali Samantar on behalf of 4 Somali men and 1 Somali woman. The complaint, based on the Torture Victim Protection Act and filed in the the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, accused Samantar of a wide range of human rights abuses, including torture, extrajudicial killing, and war crimes, committed during the regime of Siad Barré during the 1980s. Samantar was Somalia's Minister of Defense from 1980 to 1986 and Prime Minister from 1987 to 1990; he now resides in Fairfax, Virginia.
This past January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reinstated the suit, thus reversing the district court's 2007 dismissal.
Here's the issue before the Supreme Court:
Whether a foreign state’s immunity from suit under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), 28 U.S.C. § 1604, extends to an individual acting in his official capacity on behalf of a foreign state and whether an individual who is no longer an official of a foreign state at the time suit is filed retains immunity for acts taken in the individual’s former capacity as an official acting on behalf of a foreign state.
To date, no person has ever been held legally responsible for the abuses committed by the military government against the civilian population of Somalia in the 1980s.
The Supreme Court's decision to hear Samantar represents a key point in CJA's struggle to combat the recent rise of immunity defenses to avoid accountability in human rights cases. Given the fact that the Supreme Court takes only 80 cases per year, we were surprised that a CJA human rights case made it to the top of the docket. Having said that, we are confident that we prevail and that our clients will ultimately have their day in court.