(CN) – The Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to dismiss a lawsuit accusing a former Somali prime minister of overseeing killings and torture in the 1980s and early 1980s under Somalia’s military regime.
The justices unanimously allowed victims now living in the United States to pursue their claims against Mohamed Ali Samantar, the defense minister and prime minister of Somali in the 1980s and early 1990s. Victims say he was in charge of military forces that tortured, killed or imprisoned them or their relatives in the 1980s.
Samantar had argued that he is shielded by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA).
But the Supreme Court said the Act refers only to foreign states and their agencies, and “does not address an official’s claim to immunity.”
“Reading FSIA as a whole, there is nothing to suggest we should read ‘foreign state’ … to include an official acting on behalf of the foreign state, and much to indicate that this meaning was not what Congress enacted,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote.
“By adopting (Samantar’s) reading of ‘foreign state,’ we would subject claims against officials to the more limited remedies available in suits against states, without so much as a whisper from Congress on the subject,” Stevens added.
The opinion details the history of the Act, which stemmed from the State Department’s shift in the 1950s toward a “restrictive theory” of sovereign immunity. The government confined sovereign immunity “to suits involving the foreign sovereign’s public acts,” a nebulous guideline that resulted in the erratic application of immunity.
This inconsistency prompted the FSIA, which aimed to establish clear guidelines for foreign sovereign immunity claims.
“It hardly furthers Congress’ purpose of ‘clarifying the rules that judges should apply in resolving sovereign immunity claims’ to lump individual officials in with foreign states without so much as a word spelling out how and when individual officials are covered,” Stevens wrote.
The high court allowed the lawsuit to proceed, but cautioned that the case might be thrown out on other grounds.
“Whether petitioner may be entitled to immunity under the common law, and whether he may have other valid defenses to the grave charges against him, are matters to be addressed in the first instance by the district court on remand,” Stevens said.
The ruling could have broad foreign policy implications, as it will likely increase the number of lawsuits against foreign officials which, in turn, could trigger more foreign lawsuits against U.S. officials.
Omar Jamal, the first secretary of the United Nations’ Somali mission, told The Associated Press that the high court’s decision could spur “baseless” lawsuits that “probably will jam the courts.”
A federal judge had dismissed the lawsuit for lack of jurisdiction, but the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Va., reversed, ruling that the FSIA extends immunity only to foreign states and their agencies.
The justices upheld that ruling and remanded.