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Cooley Godward (51)


A groundbreaking decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in January 2009 has kept alive a five-year-old human rights suit against General Mohamed Ali Samantar, Somalia’s former prime minister and minister of defense. Cooley Godward Kronish partner Robert Vieth convinced the appellate court that the The Am Law Pro Bono 100Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (FISA) does not grant legal immunity to individuals.

Adopted in 1976, FISA shields foreign governments from civil suits in the U.S. court system. Previously, U.S. circuit courts had been divided over whether the act also protects foreign officials. The Fourth Circuit, however, found that the law only insulates governments, not their leaders.

Five Somali plaintiffs who now live in Virginia sued Samantar under the Torture Victims Protection Act of 1991 and the international doctrine of “command responsibility,” seeking monetary damages and accountability. Samantar—now a resident of Fairfax, Virginia—allegedly oversaw the rape, mass execution, and arbitrary detention of civilian protesters in Somalia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The five plaintiffs were all victims of human rights abuses in Somalia, Vieth says. One man was shot and left for dead in a mass firing; he survived by hiding under a pile of bodies, Vieth says. According to the suit, one woman was raped and given no medical treatment, and another man was abducted and tortured with electric shock. The two other plaintiffs had family members who were allegedly killed by government agents.

Cooley partnered on the case with the San Francisco-based human rights nonprofit Center for Justice and Accountability. In fall 2004 Vieth filed an initial complaint against Samantar. The case seemed lost in April 2007, when a district court accepted Samantar’s immunity claim and dismissed the case—until the Fourth Circuit reinstated it this year.

Samantar and his counsel asked the court to reconsider its decision, but the court declined. Samantar’s counsel filed a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court for certiorari in June 2009, in which they argued that this new interpretation of the FSIA “threatens to eviscerate the FSIA altogether” becaues it allows plaintiffs to sue a foreign state by simply suing its former leader, instead of the state itself.

—Claire Zillman | July 1, 2009

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