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Court Revives Lawsuit Against Ex-Somali PM

(CN) - A former Somali prime minister is not entitled to sovereign immunity for alleged torture committed in the 1980s during the dictatorship of Mohamed Siad Barre, the 4th Circuit ruled.

Six Somalis sued Mohamed Ali Samatar for torture, detentions and killings when Barre's socialist coupe cracked down on opposition forces after a failed territorial war with Ethiopia in the late 1970s. Plaintiffs, who were members of or affiliated with the influential Isaaq clan, claimed that Samatar, who also served as minister of defense and prime minister, knew or should have known of the oppression.

Plaintiff Jane Doe claimed she was abducted in 1985, tortured and raped, and held in solitary confinement for three years. John Doe II said he was shot at a 1988 mass execution and only survived by hiding beneath dead bodies.

Samatar, whom the plaintiffs discovered to be living in Virginia after the 1991 collapse of the Somali government, asserted protection under the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act, described by the 4th Circuit as intended to preserve "amicable international relations."

The federal court in Virginia granted Samatar immunity, as he was acting in an official capacity when the acts were committed.

The 4th Circuit delved deeper into case law, first determining that a 9th Circuit precedent cited by the district court studied only the relation of an individual to its government. The appeals court reviewed a 7th Circuit reading of the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act, and re-examined the statutory text.

The 4th Circuit concluded that the Act's granting of immunity to a "separate legal person" - versus the common legal term "natural person" - meant that the Act was not intended to apply to individuals.

The appellate court also cited a Supreme Court ruling on timing for immunity, deciding that an agent of a state must continue in his or her official capacity when the suit is filed in order to qualify for immunity.

In reversing and remanding the case, the ruling emphasized that factual issues of whether or what kind of torture actually occurred have yet to be worked out.

Judge Duncan wrote a concurring opinion that begged off from a decision on immunity timing.

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