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In a major victory, a group of political asylum seekers, detained in an Elizabeth, N.J., jail a decade ago and allegedly abused by guards, have won the right to go to trial on their human rights claims against the prison corporation and its corporate officers under the 1789 Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA). U.S. Senior District Judge Dickinson R. Debevoise for the District of New Jersey recently ruled that the detainees had evidence to establish alien tort claims against Correctional Services Corp., one of the largest private prison companies in the country, and its officers. The lawsuit seeks $20 million in damages. Jama v. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Civ. No. 97-3093(DRD). The Jama case is unique among ATCA suits because it alleges violations of international law committed in the United States. ATCA suits generally are brought in U.S. courts by aliens suing corporations or foreign officials for violations committed abroad. Business and human rights groups warily awaited the ruling because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, 124 S. Ct. 2739. The ruling-the first high court decision to interpret the 1789 statute-appeared to narrow the type of claims that courts could recognize under ATCA. Applying Sosa, Debevoise found the claims here met the high court’s standards. The claims involving “alleged gross mistreatment, not of criminals or persons accused of crime, but rather of persons who have committed no crime but are awaiting a decision on their applications for asylum.” The law of nations, wrote Debevoise, “can be said to have reached a consensus that the inhumane treatment of a huge number of persons accused of no crime and held in confinement is a violation of the law of nations.” Penny Venetis, associate director of the Constitutional Law Clinic at Rutgers School of Law-Newark, which has represented the nine asylum seekers since 1996, said the decision confirmed that private corporations doing business in the United States can be sued for human rights violations. It also addressed two issues left by Sosa, he said: conditions of confinement can rise to the level of human rights abuses, and physical torture is not needed to violate customary international law. “The great thing about the decision is the judge doesn’t limit it to political asylum seekers,” said Venetis. “You could easily apply the holding to the post-9/11 detainees.” The Jama case began with 20 asylum seekers, most of whom “have been scattered to the four winds,” she said. Of the remaining nine, two have been deported “in secret, middle of the night deportations,” she added. Correctional Services Corp. counsel, Steven Weinstein and J. Llewellyn Mathews of Blank Rome’s Cherry Hill, N.J., office and Larry Reich of Blank Rome’s New York office, did not respond to requests for comment.

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