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Aliens claiming abuse by guards at a privatized immigration detention center in Elizabeth, N.J., can pursue human rights claims against the company that ran it, a federal judge ruled on Nov. 10. U.S. District Judge Dickinson Debevoise allowed nine plaintiffs to sue Correctional Services Corp. and its officers under the Alien Tort Claims and Religious Freedom Restoration Acts and to raise state law claims of negligent hiring, training, supervision and retention of abusive guards. Plaintiffs lawyer Penny Venetis says the ruling, in Jama v. Esmor, 97-Civ. 3093, is the first to hold a corporation can be sued under the alien tort law for acts committed on U.S. soil. “You don’t need to put electrodes under people’s nails and beat them to a pulp in order to violate human rights law,” says Venetis, of the Rutgers Constitutional Litigation Clinic. The Sarasota, Fla., defendant, formerly known as Esmor Correctional Services, ran the detention center under a contract with the Immigration and Naturalization Service from August 1994 to July 1995, when the INS shut it down after detainees rioted over conditions. The plaintiffs complain of filth, crowding, moldy food, overflowing toilets, lack of privacy and sleeping areas so cold that ice formed on the walls. They also contend they were shackled, beaten, humiliated, menaced by dogs and denied medical treatment. Debevoise dismissed constitutional, Fair Labor Standards Act, third-party breach-of-contract and emotional distress claims against the company and its officers. He also threw out all claims against INS officials and individual guards, except for Phillip Johnson, who still faces constitutional and tort claims for alleged sexual assault on Cecilia Kou Jeffrey. The case is one of the first to address the scope of the alien tort law, 28 U.S.C. 1350, since the U.S. Supreme Court decided Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, 124 S.Ct. 2739, on June 29. The Sosa opinion limited judges’ discretion to recognize causes of action under the alien tort law, says Frank Volpe, of Washington, D.C.’s Sidley, Austin, Brown & Wood, who represents Correctional Services. Venetis notes increased use of alien tort claims against corporations, including CACI International and Titan Corp., which have been sued over abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Beth Stephen, an international human rights law professor at Rutgers Law School-Camden who filed an amicus brief in Jama, says the ruling is sure to be cited in the Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib litigation.

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