02/28/2012 05:52 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2012

Somali War Criminal Liable for Crimes Against Humanity

Just days ago, Somali General Mohamad Ali Samantar, former Defense Minister and Commander of the Somali Armed Forces, appeared in a federal court in Virginia and did something that no high-ranking person from the former military dictatorship of Siad Barre has ever done -- he accepted liability for torture, extrajudicial killing, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other human rights abuses committed against the civilian population of Somalia during the 1980s. This is the first time that anyone has been held to account anywhere in the world for atrocities committed by General Samantar and the military dictatorship that ruled Somalia for over 20 years.

General Samantar was the highest ranking military official in that dictatorship and he acknowledged giving the orders that led to the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians and displacement of hundreds of thousands from Somalia's second largest city, Hargeisa. Many of those who were displaced became refugees and eventually relocated to the United States. In fact, there are over 85,000 Somalis living in the United States today. And remarkably, General Samantar is also among those 85,000 -- having moved to Fairfax, Virginia, where he has lived comfortably, enjoying the benefits and privileges of U.S. residency, for the past 15 years.

When General Samantar stepped up to the court room podium and personally admitted liability for his crimes in front of the four plaintiffs who filed suit against him and other members of the Somali diaspora, it marked a poignant end to a seven-year quest for justice. For these plaintiffs, it was a stunning reversal of fortune to see General Samantar, who once presided over the country with an iron fist, humble himself in front of a federal judge. In the words of plaintiff Bashe Abdi Yousuf, "For many, many years, I have been looking for justice -- for my day in court and not just for me personally, but for the thousands of people in Somalia who were tortured, and murdered. It has been many years and required a lot of patience, but today Samantar is finally being held accountable for ordering these horrific crimes. It is hard to put into words what this means for me and so many others who were impacted by the Siad Barre regime. It gives me great comfort that I can put this chapter of my life behind."

The four plaintiffs in this case represented a cross-section of Somali society, from a rural goat herder to prominent businessmen; they were united by three common threads -- they and their families were all members of the Isaaq clan; they all suffered brutal treatment at the hands of General Samantar's armed forces; and they all steadfastly believed that they could achieve justice in a U.S. courtroom. Through their perseverance, these four courageous plaintiffs achieved that justice.

They also achieved another important goal: the judgment sends a strong and unmistakable message that former foreign officials cannot come to the U.S. and escape accountability for egregious human rights crimes committed in their home countries. The plaintiffs hope that this message reverberates in countries where dictators continue to commit human rights atrocities against their own citizens. That type of deterrence would mark the ultimate victory.