A California-based human rights group has filed lawsuits in federal court in Alexandria alleging that two Somali residents of Northern Virginia ordered torture, killings, rapes and other acts of brutality against a rival clan during the 1980s when they held positions of power in their homeland.
The two lawsuits claim that Mohamed Ali Samatar, a former defense minister and prime minister of Somalia, and Yusuf Abdi Ali, a former colonel who commanded a notorious Somali army battalion, bear responsibility for human rights violations committed during the military regime of the late Somali president Mohamed Siad Barre, who was deposed in 1991. The lawsuits were filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria on Wednesday on behalf of eight Somali plaintiffs.
The lawsuits, filed by the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability and a Reston law firm, represent the latest effort by private groups to hold accountable alleged human rights violators who have found safe haven in the United States.
Human rights groups say hundreds of war criminals from various countries have found refuge in the United States, living quiet lives in places such as the Washington suburbs. Although U.S. immigration law has provisions designed to keep them out and deport them if they are found, enforcement has often been lax, victims' advocates complain.
Samatar, a resident of Fairfax County, came to the United States in the early 1990s after his wife was granted political asylum. Abdi Ali, known to Somalis by his nom de guerre, Tokeh ("the Crow"), received military training in the United States in 1986 and 1990 and sought refuge in Canada when the Siad Barre government collapsed. He landed in the United States after he was deported from Canada in 1992 because of his human rights record, and he eventually prevailed in a six-year legal battle with U.S. immigration. He now lives and works in Alexandria.
Samatar and Abdi Ali could not be reached for comment yesterday. In an interview in Canada before being deported, Abdi Ali denied that he committed human rights abuses.
In filing the lawsuits, the center hopes to build on previous successes in suing foreign human rights violators in the United States -- if not actually collecting judgments.
In a case filed by the center last year, a federal judge ordered two former Salvadoran defense ministers living in Florida to pay damages to torture victims, including Juan Romagoza, who runs a clinic for the indigent in the District.
Among the plaintiffs in the suit against Samatar is Bashe Abdi Yousuf, a former businessman in northwestern Somalia and an Isaaq clan member who now lives in Atlanta. He says he was arrested in November 1981 for participating in a group that sought to improve conditions at a hospital and was repeatedly tortured and held in solitary confinement in a small, windowless cell for more than six years. He fled Somalia after he was released from prison in 1989 and arrived in the United States in 1991.
Five other plaintiffs in the suit -- four men and a woman -- are anonymous because they fear reprisals, said Sandra Coliver, executive director of the Center for Justice and Accountability. Four of the five still live in Somalia, and one is in Kuwait.
They include a farmer who was arrested with his two brothers while tending the family's camels in northern Somalia in 1984, according to the complaint against Samatar. The brothers were among 45 prisoners who were summarily executed, the complaint says.
The woman was allegedly tortured and raped repeatedly during more than four years of imprisonment.
In addition, a former noncommissioned officer in the Somali army alleges that he survived a massacre of fellow Isaaq members of the military in June 1988. The other two plaintiffs against Samatar are a former college student who says he was shot and left for dead in a July 1989 mass execution at Jezira Beach south of the capital, Mogadishu, and a mechanic who says he lost four brothers in the same massacre.
The lawsuit charges that Samatar, as defense minister from 1980 to 1987 and prime minister from 1987 to 1990, "exercised command and control over the Armed Forces of Somalia" and "conspired with or aided and abetted subordinates" in committing acts of torture, extrajudicial killing, rape, arbitrary detention, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The complaint against Abdi Ali was filed on behalf of two anonymous Somali farmers, also members of the Isaaq clan, who alleged they were tortured by soldiers under the colonel's command as well as by Abdi Ali himself.