(CN) - Rwandan President Paul Kagame cannot be sued on U.S. soil for allegedly masterminding the 1994 assassinations of two African leaders, the 10th Circuit ruled.
The widows of Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundi president Cyprien Ntarymira said in a federal complaint that Kagame gave the order to shoot down a plane carrying their husbands.
The murder of the Hutu leaders sparked a massacre of the minority Tutsis, fueling the Rwandan genocide, "which spread violence across East Central Africa and cost upwards of one million innocent victims their lives," the court explained.
Though some believe that Hutu Power extremists, opposed to a peace accord with the rebels, downed the plane, Habyarimana and Ntarymira's widows belong to a group that thinks the Kagame's Tutsi-manned Rwandan Patriotic Front fired down the plane.
The widows say that Kagame perpetrated the attack because it "could only bring about bloody reprisals against the Tutsi community, and which offered him a veneer of legitimacy for his renewal of hostilities and his seizing of state power in Rwanda by criminally violent means."
They filed suit in Oklahoma under the Alien Tort Claims Act, the Torture Act and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act.
A federal judge dismissed the action based on "Suggestion of Immunity" submitted to the court by the United States in response to a request by the Rwandan government regarding the trial of a sitting head of state.
The Salt Lake City-based federal appeals court affirmed Wednesday.
"The Constitution assigns to the U.S. president alone the responsibility to represent the nation in its foreign relations," the government had said. "The interest of the United States in this matter arises from a determination by the executive branch of the government of the United States, in consideration of relevant principles of customary international law, and in the implementation of its foreign policy and in the conduct of its international relations, to recognize President Kagame's immunity from this suit while in office."
The court agreed, citing a passage from the 1974 5th Circuit opinion in Spacil v. Crowe. "The precedents are overwhelming," according to that decision authored by Judge Wisdom. "For more than 160 years American courts have consistently applied the doctrine of sovereign immunity when requested to do so by the executive branch."
Judge Bobby Ray Baldock authored the six-page opinion on behalf of a three-member panel.
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