Tuesday, June 1, 2010
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today in Samantar v. Yousef that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) does not provide immunity from suit for a Somali official accused of human rights violations. In that case, plaintiffs brought suit against Samantar, a former First Vice President and Minister of Defense, and later Prime Minister, of Somalia in the 1980s. Plaintiffs alleged that they were victims of torture and extrajudicial killings at the hands of Somali military personnel and that Samantar knew or should have known of the abuse and taken steps to prevent and stop it. In his defense, Samantar argued that he was immune from suit under FSIA as an official of a foreign state who was acting in his official capacity.
In an opinion delivered by Justice Stevens, the Supreme Court held that neither the language nor the history or purpose of the FSIA suggests that the immunity from suit provided to states should be extended to individuals. The text of FSIA states that it applies to political subdivisions of states and their agencies or instrumentalities, and there is no indication that its protections should be extended to individuals. Because this is a suit against an individual, the Court suggested that it is more appropriately governed by common law principles rather than FSIA. All of the justices agreed with the judgment, although three (Alito, Scalia and Thomas) wrote concurring opinions.