(Cambridge, MA) - The US Supreme Court has ruled that foreign government officials who commit human rights abuses while in office are not entitled to immunity in US courts under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). The Court unanimously held that FSIA immunity extends only to foreign states and their agencies, not to individuals.
A brief prepared by Harvard Law School's International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) on behalf of more than twenty amici curiae argued that the FSIA does not shield individual former officials from suit in US courts for violations of fundamental human rights such as torture and extrajudicial killing. Amici included Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Human Rights First, EarthRights International, and the IHRC, as well as individual torture survivors such as Dolly Filártiga, who brought the first successful case against a torturer under the Alien Tort Statute in 1980.
"The Supreme Court's ruling is a victory for survivors of torture," said Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch. "It puts to rest the idea that officials can get away with torture by hiding behind a law that protects foreign governments from suit."
The case, Samantar v. Yousuf, brings claims against Somali General Mohamed Ali Samantar for torture, rape, and mass executions committed against the civilian population of Somalia during the 1980s. The Supreme Court's decision means the case against Samantar is remanded to the district court for further proceedings.
The IHRC drafted the brief in collaboration with some of the leading human rights organizations around the globe. Tyler Giannini, Clinical Director of the IHRC and Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, served as counsel of record. "The Supreme Court's ruling is critical because it ensures that torture survivors - including American students, relief workers, and US government personnel - can continue to seek justice in US courts against government officials, as they have done for decades," Giannini said.
Rick Herz, Litigation Coordinator for EarthRights International, said, "We congratulate the plaintiffs and their counsel. This is a huge victory for all victims of atrocity whose oppressors have sought safe haven in the United States."
The case involves the claims of Bashe Abdi Yousuf as well as other torture survivors. Somali National Security Service agents and military police detained and tortured Yousuf. They subjected him to electrocution, denied him food and water, and forced him into stress positions, including tying his arms and legs tied behind his body and placing a heavy rock on his back.
Vienna Colucci, Senior Advisor for Policy at Amnesty International USA, said, "The Court's 9-0 decision is clear: the FSIA does not apply to individuals, and US courts will not turn a blind eye to egregious human rights violations wherever they might occur."
Elisa Massimino, President and Chief Executive Officer of Human Rights First, noted: "The Court today preserved the Torture Victim Protection Act as a viable remedy for victims of gross human rights violations. The Act is vital to promote accountability of officials who commit these violations."
The case against Samantar was filed on behalf of Somali survivors, who were represented initially by the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA). For the appeal before the Supreme Court, CJA has been joined by Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld LLP; the Stanford Law School Supreme Court Litigation Clinic; Cooley Godward Kronish LLP; and Howe & Russell, PC.