WASHINGTON, June 1 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday that a former foreign official cannot use a federal law to escape being the target of a suit claiming torture.
The case involves Mohamed Ali Samanta, who from 1980 to 1986 was first vice president and minister of defense in Somalia, and from 1987 to 1990 was the country's prime minister. When the regime collapsed he fled in 1991 and has been living in Virginia.
A group of Somali natives filed suit seeking damages, saying Samanta was responsible for his subordinates' torture and killing of their relatives, or the torture of the plaintiffs themselves, during his years in office.
The plaintiffs were members of the Isaaq clan, which included well-educated and prosperous Somalis who were subjected to systematic persecution during the 1980s.
The suit was filed under the 1991 Torture Victim Protection Act and the federal Alien Tort Statute. Samanta claimed immunity from suit under the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.
A federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., said FSIA did not grant Samanta immunity, and the Supreme Court agreed.
Writing for the court, Justice John Paul Stevens said the only thing the justices had to decide was whether FISA gave Samanta immunity from suit based on actions taken in his official capacity.
"We hold that the FSIA does not govern the determination of petitioner's immunity from suit," Stevens said. " ... Reading the FSIA as a whole, there is nothing to suggest that 'foreign state' should be read to include an official acting on behalf of that state."