2010-06-01, Washington D.C., U.S.A. The USSC rendered its judgment in Samantar v. Yousuf - a case filed by the CJA on behalf of victims of violations of human rights against a former Somali Minister of Defense and Prime Minister Mohamed Ali Samantar. The claim was brought under the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 and the Alien Tort Statute.
On August 1, 2007, the case was dismissed by Judge Brinkema of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under the FSIA. She found that the defendant was acting in his official capacity and therefore was immune from the lawsuit.
On January 8, 2009, Judges Traxler, Duncan and King of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed, on the ground that the FSIA does not apply to individuals and, as a result, Samantar is not entitled to immunity under the FSIA. It held that “agency or instrumentality” should be interpreted as referring to a political body or corporate entity, but not an individual. Furthermore, the court found that Congress did not intend to shield former government agents from lawsuits under the FSIA. The Court of Appeals refused to address the defendant’s arguments that he is protected by the common law doctrine of head-of-state immunity, and that the plaintiffs’ claims under the ATS and the TVPA are time-barred, and that plaintiffs’ claims are also barred because they failed to exhaust their legal remedies in Somalia.
On June 1, 2010, Justice Stevens for the unanimous USSC upheld the Court of Appeals’ judgment by holding, on the following grounds, that the FSIA did not deprive the District Court of the subject-matter jurisdiction:
- the FSIA does not provide immunity to any officials of foreign states, current or former, because the statute establishes immunities and procedures that could not apply to individuals, but apply to entities and states only;
- the FSIA was intended to codify the common law governing state sovereign immunity, but not the common law with respect to the immunity of individual officials;
- just because in some circumstances the immunity of the foreign state extends to an individual for acts taken in his official capacity, it does not follow that Congress intended to codify that immunity in the FSIA;
- even if a suit is not governed by the Act, it may still be barred by foreign sovereign immunity under the common law.