WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to block a lawsuit against a former prime minister of Somalia over claims that he oversaw killings and torture in his home country.
The high court said it will allow lawsuits against Mohamed Ali Samantar to go forward despite his claims of immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. However, the court warned that the U.S. District Court will have to decide whether Samantar can access other claims of immunity that could stop the trial.
The court's decision could have broad foreign policy implications. Allowing lawsuits against former foreign officials living in the United States could increase the likelihood that U.S. officials would be sued in overseas courts. An increase in the number of U.S. lawsuits dealing with past actions in foreign countries could also affect the United States' current ties with those countries.
Samantar was defense minister and prime minister of Somalia in the 1980s and early 1990s under dictator Siad Barre.
He now lives in Virginia. He is being sued under the Torture Victim Protection Act by Somalis living in the United States who were subjected to persecution in the 1980s. They say Samantar was in charge of military forces who tortured, killed or detained them or members of their families.
A federal judge had thrown out the lawsuits against Samantar, saying he is entitled to diplomatic immunity under the FSIA. That law says "a foreign state shall be immune from the jurisdiction" of federal and state courts in most lawsuits. The federal judge said that protection extends to "an individual acting in his official capacity on behalf of a foreign state."
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, saying that immunity does not extend to individuals, only to foreign states and their agencies.
The high court upheld that ruling.
"There is nothing to suggest we should read 'foreign state' ... to include an official acting on behalf of the foreign state, and much to indicate that this meaning was not what Congress enacted," said retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, writing the unanimous judgment for the court. "The text does not foreclose petitioner's reading, but it supports the view of respondents and the United States that the Act does not address an official's claim to immunity."
The court said its decision does not mean that the lawsuit against Samantar automatically goes forward.
"Whether petitioner may be entitled to immunity under the common law, and whether he may have other valid defenses to the grave charges against him, are matters to be addressed in the first instance by the District Court on remand," Stevens said.
The case is Samantar v. Yousuf, 08-1555.