WASHINGTON (CN) – U.S. government officials are not liable to pay damages to the widow of rebel fighter Efrain Bamaca-Velasquez, who was killed by members of the Guatemalan army in the early 1990s, the D.C. Circuit ruled.
Jennifer Harbury blamed the United States for her husband’s death, claiming the CIA hired and trained Guatemalan army officers to gather information about rebel forces “through torture and similar means.”
Her husband, Bamaca, was allegedly captured in March 1992 by Guatemalan officers affiliated with the CIA. She claimed the CIA reported to the White House and U.S. government agencies that Guatemalan forces had captured Bamaca “and that they would probably fabricate his combat death in order to be able to maximize their ability to extract information” from him.
Though the Guatemalan army told the public that Bamaca had committed suicide, Harbury claimed its officers “detained, psychologically abused and physically tortured” him and later killed him.
She filed a lawsuit against a litany of government officials in their personal capacities, including CIA Directors Michael Hayden, John Deutch, R. James Woolsey and Robert Gates.
The district court dismissed most of her claims, except her common-law tort claims against the individual CIA defendants.
But in March 2000, then-Attorney General Janet Reno certified that the CIA defendants had acted within the scope of their duty, removed them from the complaint and substituted the United States as the sole defendant – making the case subject to the Federal Tort Claims Act and its exceptions, including a foreign-country exception.
Harbury challenged Reno’s move, but the district court dismissed her tort claims as falling within the Act’s foreign-country exception. On appeal, Harbury argued that “acts of torture can never fall within the scope of employment.” The government responded by saying that her claims pose “political questions” that federal courts may not consider.
The appeals court concluded that even if it ignored the political-question doctrine, it had to dismiss Harbury’s claims based on federal law. “The FTCA applies to Harbury’s tort claims, and the FTCA bars suits based on injuries suffered in a foreign country.”