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The Torture Victim Protection Act provides victims of torture or their surviving family members the means to sue their tormentors in U.S. federal court. That is, if the plaintiffs can show they’ve exhausted the remedies available in the country where the torture occurred. The law complements the parallel but much older Alien Tort Claims Act, which was adopted in 1789 and allows foreign nationals to sue violators of international law in U.S. courts. (U.S. citizens cannot sue under the alien tort act.) Although initially enacted to combat piracy on the high seas, the alien tort act has been used in the last 20 years to hold individuals and corporations liable for a host of human rights violations. The Torture Victim Protection Act and Alien Tort Claims Act have become the backbone of dozens of lawsuits, including successful cases by Guatemalan peasants against their country’s former defense minister and by Philippine nationals against the estate of Ferdinand Marcos for torture carried out during his rule. In September, victims of rape and torture won a $4.5 billion judgment against former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in federal court in the Southern District of New York. Now awaiting trial, also in New York’s Southern District, is a case against Li Peng, former Chinese premier, for injuries to student activists during the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989. And in a federal district court in Miami, plaintiffs are suing an agent of Chile’s secret police during the regime of Augusto Pinochet. Although expensive and time-consuming, these cases are becoming an increasingly prominent weapon in the arsenal available to human rights activists. Notably, however, in many cases successful plaintiffs win no more than a moral victory if the losing defendants cannot satisfy a judgment. The reality is that even when the defendant does have assets, as was true in the Marcos case, plaintiffs usually spend years trying to collect.

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