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The war between Eritrea and Ethiopia was still raging when Noah Novogrodsky trekked to the Horn of Africa on a Yale Law School human rights fellowship. Novogrodsky’s mission was to collect information that could increase awareness of Ethiopian human rights abuses against ethnic Eritreans who lived in the country. What solidified his resolve to pursue a lawsuit were the stories he heard — like tales of 5-year-olds accused by the Ethiopian government of spying and then sent packing from the only home they’d ever known. Novogrodsky left the region in 1999, and the war between the two countries has since ended. But Novogrodsky is continuing the fight. Now back in the United States and settling into his second year as a litigation associate at San Francisco-based Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin, 30-year-old Novogrodsky is heavily involved in a lawsuit against the Ethiopian government and its national bank. “I’m the fact guy on the case, because I know the refugees,” said Novogrodsky, who spent a full year in Africa, first in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and then fleeing to South Africa when the situation became too risky. “I’ve been the face of this faraway foreign litigation on their behalf.” The counsel of record is New York’s Debevoise & Plimpton, but Novogrodsky said he’s logged 700 hours on the case over the last 15 months. Howard Rice has let him apply about 200 of those hours toward his 1,950 annual billables, and the firm also paid for him to fly back to Eritrea this past January to take testimony from refugees. The suit claims jurisdiction under an exception in the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, claiming Ethiopia perpetrated an illegal taking of property from Ethiopians of Eritrean origin. The argument is that because Ethiopia does business with American financial institutions, the country can fall under U.S. jurisdiction. Hiwot Nemariam et al. v. Federal Republic of Ethiopia, 00-1392, is scheduled for a conference this spring in Washington, D.C., before U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson. “We’re trying to establish that when a foreign government engages in human rights violations that include expropriation of property, they can be held accountable to the extent they do business in the U.S.,” said Novogrodsky. “In a word, we’re suing the state of Ethiopia and its national bank for takings in violation of international law.” He said numerous Eritreans expelled from Ethiopia had their real estate, businesses, financial holdings and personal items taken by the Ethiopian government. “We’re finally getting a chance to tell their story in a judicial forum,” said Novogrodsky. “In some ways the fact that this suit was filed is as significant as any judicial remedy.” Counsel for Ethiopia, the Washington, D.C., firm of Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand, did not return calls for comment. The suit contends the government and the bank can be held responsible for damages against the class of about 2,000 Eritreans expelled. To do this, they’ll need to prove that an “agency of the state” of Ethiopia is doing business in the United States, via transactions it’s involved in with New York banks. Lawyers from Debevoise and Yale Law School students are doing the legwork in New York, while Novogrodsky has the most contact with victims. “We want the money they took from these people given back,” he said. Novogrodsky’s arrival at Howard Rice came on the heels of his fellowship in Africa and a clerkship for a federal judge in Boston. He also has a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Cambridge. He said he became increasingly interested in human rights issues while in law school, where he worked with a professor, Owen Fiss, on helping Eritrea draft its first constitution. When he decided to move to California, where his wife, Isa, is seeking a graduate degree in history from UC-Berkeley, Fiss put him in touch with Howard Rice name partner Jerome Falk Jr., with whom he had once clerked. “Noah is nothing if not enthusiastic,” Falk said. “He meets his obligations to the firm and our clients, and he does these other things on the side, and he does them very well.” “For me, being able to continue the pro bono has made the balance,” Novogrodsky said. “My passion is human rights, and this lawsuit is my way to bring that to my work at the law firm.”

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