Supreme Court rules foreign officials not immune from suit

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Tuesday ruled [opinion, PDF] unanimously in Samantar v. Yousef [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (FSIA) [28 USC §§ 1330, 1602 et seq. text] does not grant foreign officials immunity from civil lawsuits. In affirming the decision [opinion, PDF] of the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and resolving a circuit split, the court held that Congress had not intended to grant immunity to foreign officials in enacting the FSIA. Congress intended only to codify existing international and common law regarding suits against foreign states, not those against individual members of foreign governments. In affirming the decision below, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote:

The immunity of officials simply was not the particular problem to which Congress was responding when it enacted the FSIA. The FSIA was adopted, rather, to address "a modern world where foreign state enterprises are every day participants in commercial activities," and to assure litigants that decisions regarding claims against states and their enterprises "are made on purely legal grounds."
In remanding the case to the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, the Supreme Court emphasized the narrowness of the ruling, stating that the questions of common law immunity and the petitioner's defenses must be addressed by the lower court. Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Antonin Scalia concurred in the judgment, but disagreed with the majority's use of legislative history. Scalia stated that the use of legislative history when the statute unambiguously specified only foreign states was not necessary.

Respondents are seeking damages from petitioner Mohamed Ali Samantar under the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 [28 USC § 1350 text]. Samantar was minister of defense and later prime minister of Somalia from 1980 to 1990. Respondents claim that Samantar authorized torture and the extrajudicial killing of them and members of their family. Respondents are members of the Isaaq clan, a group that was subject to systematic persecution during Samantar's time in office before the collapse of the Somali government in 1991 [State Department backgrounder]. Samantar fled Somalia before the collapse of the government and now resides in Virginia.

 

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