Justices Weigh Conflicting Laws In Lawsuit Against Somali Torture Official

03.04.10 | FL News Team

Supreme Court justices seemed split yesterday on whether refugees living in the U.S. can sue the foreign officials who once tortured them. The case before the high court involves a Somali businessman named Barre Yousuf who fled to the U.S. after a decade of detention and torture that included waterboarding. He's suing the man who served as defense minister and prime minister in the 1980s when Yousuf was in custody. The ex-official, Mohamed Ali Samantar, fled Somalia when the government collapsed in 1991 and now lives in Virginia.

 The case pits two separate U.S. laws against each other. A 1991 law allows torture victims to be compensated for their suffering. But it runs up against strong legal precedents of extending immunity to foreign governments. The split in the court didn't fall evenly on liberal-versus-conservative lines. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Stephen Breyer both found themselves wondering what would happen to the principle of sovereign immunity if anyone can sue a foreign government here. And Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was joined by several colleagues in saying that since one individual was suing another individual, there was no harm to the Somali government. Critics of the case warn that foreign governments could retaliate against a ruling perceived as unfriendly by allowing their own citizens to sue U.S. officials after they leave office.