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Will $21 Million Somalia Judgment Be the Last of Its Kind?

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This week, a group of Somalians subjected to torture and other human rights abuses by the Somalian regime received a measure of justice before a U.S. federal district court. This year, will the U.S. Supreme Court allow such cases to continue?

In the historic case decided Tuesday, Samantar v. Yousuf, a judge awarded $21 million in compensatory and punitive damages against former Somali General Mohamed Ali Samantar for committing torture, extrajudicial killing, war crimes and other human rights abuses against the civilian population of Somalia. For those who suffered his abuses, this judgment is long overdue. Nevertheless, it marks the first time that a former Somali government official has been held accountable for gross human rights violations committed under the brutal Siad Barre regime, the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1969 to 1991.

Represented by the Center for Justice & Accountability, the seven Somali plaintiffs sued under two U.S. laws: the 200-year-old American Alien Tort Statute (ATS), and the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 1991. These laws are in place to protect individuals from the worst-of-the-worst human rights abuses. From a young Somali businessman abducted and subjected to electroshock treatment to a goat herder whose two brothers were ruthlessly executed, the Somali plaintiffs viewed our legal system, and the ATS, as a beacon of hope. After all, Samantar is living here, in Virginia, enjoying the benefits of residency in the U.S. Why should he -- or anyone, for that matter -- be able to avoid legal liability for murder?

But that's just what oil giant Shell will argue to the Supreme Court on October 1. The Nigerian plaintiffs allege that Shell hired the notorious Nigerian military to commit extrajudicial killing, torture, and crimes against humanity, against peaceful activists opposed to its oil drilling project. The case, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum (Shell), involves allegations that Shell was complicit in the extrajudicial killing and torture of peaceful environmentalists in Nigeria, as well as crimes against humanity against villagers in the oil-rich Niger Delta. The issue before the Court is simple: whether the ATS can be used to hold human rights abusers liable for overseas violations, as it has been used for some 30 years. If Shell gets its way, survivors of human rights abuses will lose one of their few means of seeking justice. And the U.S. will become a safe haven for human rights abusers.

No person or entity present in the U.S. should be given a free pass for murder, torture, or crimes against humanity. The Supreme Court already decided, earlier this year, that the TVPA does not apply to corporations, but the threat posed to the ATS in Kiobel is even broader. The Supreme Court's decision in Kiobel will determine the future of one of our most important tools for human rights justice in this country. This Court has already given corporations unprecedented rights as "persons." Let's hope the justices keep their legal responsibilities intact.