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Pamela Merchant Headshot

Is There a War Criminal Living in Your Backyard?

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How would you feel if a man responsible for the rape, torture and murder of thousands of people was living freely in your community? That's right -- parking next to you at Costco, sitting next to you at the movie theater, or waiting in line behind you at the dry cleaner. If you live in our nation's capitol, one of your neighbors is Mohamed Ali Samantar, the former Minister of Defense for Somalia under the brutal Siad Barre regime.

Samantar, who currently lives in Fairfax, Virginia, oversaw the military for a regime that tortured, imprisoned, and summarily executed civilians during the 1980's. Teachers, students, and nomads were accused of supporting an opposition campaign and were slaughtered. Samantar was in command of the Somali forces engaged in these indiscriminate attacks upon the civilian population and personally oversaw the 1988 aerial and land attacks on Hargeisa, the nation's second largest city, which killed over 5,000 residents.

After the fall of the Barre regime in 1991 Samantar fled to Europe and then to the United States. He is one of many former foreign government officials who have committed horrific human rights violations and are now living freely in the United States just like you and me. If that makes you cringe, how do you think the survivors of their crimes feel?

At the Center for Justice and Accountability, a non-profit organization that seeks to bring human rights abusers like Samantar to justice, we help survivors of human rights abuses hold their perpetrators individually accountable through litigation.

In a few weeks, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear the opening arguments in a case that will decide whether or not former foreign government officials like Samantar -- who come to America and enjoy the benefits of being and living in America -- are above the law in a way that nobody else in this democratic country is. The case is Yousuf v. Samantar and it is the first human rights case filed addressing the abuses committed in Somalia during the Barre regime. In this case, the Supreme Court will decide whether foreign government officials, after using their power to torture, rape and kill, are truly subject to U.S. law or whether they are above the law and can avoid responsibility for their actions.

The plaintiffs in this case are courageous survivors of egregious human rights abuses. Bashe Abdi Yousuf was a young business man who was detained, tortured, and kept in solitary confinement for over six years. Aziz Mohamed Deria represents his father and brother, who were abducted by officials during the attack on Hargeisa and never seen again. Today, Bashe and Aziz are U.S. citizens living in the United States.

The remaining plaintiffs are so fearful for retribution that they are listed as Jane and John Doe's. Jane Doe was a university student detained by officials and sentenced to life in prison after a trial where she was given no legal counsel. In detention, she was raped at least 15 times and kept in solitary confinement for over three years. John Doe I was arbitrarily detained by Somali government forces and threatened with death. He also represents his two brothers who were summarily executed by soldiers. John Doe II, imprisoned for his affiliation to the Isaaq clan, was shot by a firing squad, but miraculously survived by hiding under the dead bodies of others who had been killed.

On November 10, 2004, the Center for Justice and Accountability and pro bono co-counsel Cooley Godward Kronish LLP filed this lawsuit against Mohamed Ali Samantar under the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) seeking damages on behalf of the 5 survivors. The TVPA, passed by Congress in1991, states that foreign government officials who torture -- including those who torture U.S. citizens -- are not above the law and must be held accountable for their actions. According to the act, when the alleged torturer has chosen to live within U.S. borders and an effective judicial system is unavailable in the country where the crimes were committed -- as is the case in Somalia -- the torturer is then subject to the laws of the U.S.

Samantar responded to the complaint by arguing that he is protected under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), which provides a foreign state with immunity from lawsuits in the U.S. On September 30, 2009, the Supreme Court announced that it would review whether Samantar -- as an individual -- is immune from civil suit here. And today, we filed our brief with the court on behalf of the plaintiffs explaining why Samantar is not immune -- and why our case should go forward in the lower court.

By seeking to dismiss this case, Mohamed Ali Samantar, having chosen to move to the United States and enjoy the benefits of living in this country, seeks to override the laws of this country while simultaneously taking away the Congressionally given rights of U.S. soldiers, prisoners of war, and citizens to hold those who have inflicted the gravest human rights abuses against them accountable.

For the five plaintiffs of this case, a decision against Samantar will bring much needed justice for themselves and for survivors of human rights abuses everywhere. And it will send a message to war criminals that the U.S will not provide them with a safe haven -- and that they will be held responsible for their actions under U.S. law. To learn more about the case, visit www.cja.org.

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