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Correction to This Article
This article about former Somali prime minister Mohamed Ali Samantar incorrectly said that he lives in Fairfax City. He lives in Fairfax County. The photo caption also contained the error.

At 74, Fairfax resident, a former Somali prime minister, may face war-crimes lawsuit

Mohamed Ali Samantar, now of Fairfax City, is the focus of a case coming to the Supreme Court.
Mohamed Ali Samantar, now of Fairfax City, is the focus of a case coming to the Supreme Court. (By Susan Biddle For The Washington Post)
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By Brigid Schulte
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Mohamed Ali Samantar, whose name will be brought before the Supreme Court this week as that of a war criminal in his native Somalia, has a hard time getting up from the couch in his tidy split-level home in Fairfax City.

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Dressed in a pressed charcoal-colored suit for his first interview in many years, Samantar, 74, stiffly hauls himself halfway up from the threadbare brocade sofa. Some of his 13 sons and daughters rush in to help. He stays them with a single gruff word. Slowly, the man who was defense minister and prime minister of the last functioning regime in Somalia stands up on his own.

His five accusers in a civil lawsuit call him a war criminal, a monster living out his golden years with impunity in a quiet suburban neighborhood. This man, they say, was responsible for the unjust torture that they or members of their families suffered in the 1980s. They say Samantar administered a regime of repeated rape, abduction, summary execution and years-long imprisonment in solitary confinement. The accusers want someone, finally, to be held accountable for the well-documented human rights atrocities of that era.

Samantar waves his hand impatiently. The accusations, he says in a deep, throaty voice, are "baseless allegations, with no foundation in truth."

They come from a time when the country was in the midst of the first of many brutal civil wars, pitting north against south, clan against clan. A time when no one's hands were clean. "I served the people rightly and justly," he says. "I always respected the rule of law. I am no monster. I am not going to eat anyone."

With that, his 3-year-old granddaughter, one of the many grandchildren screeching gleefully throughout the house for their traditional Sunday dinner, comes up and kisses him on the lips.

The case before the justices is not about whether Samantar is a war criminal, but whether his accusers, with no viable legal alternatives in their homeland, can sue to make him answer their allegations. The question to be decided, which has potentially powerful policy implications for the United States and its foreign relations, centers on immunity.

Samantar says he has immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act, which protects foreign states from lawsuits. His lawyers argue that, although that law does not mention individuals, it protects his official actions just the same. His accusers, in a suit first filed in federal district court in Virginia in 2004 by the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability, say the law does not shield individuals, especially those who've been out of office for years.

The case has divided courts. A federal judge in Alexandria ruled that even if the immunity law does not mention individuals, such protection is the "practical equivalent" of immunity offered to a state. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond overturned the lower court, pointing to the law's silence on individual immunity.

Samantar's attorney, Michael Carvin, says that a decision against Samantar would open U.S. officials to lawsuits in other countries.

The accusers' attorney, Patricia Millet, says that Congress and the executive branch "have expressly determined that" it is in the United States' interest to deny "foreign officials who engage in torture and killing a safe haven within the United States."

A hero or a criminal?

Talk to Somalis about Mohamed Ali Samantar and the lawsuit, or cruise through Somali chat rooms on the Internet, and you will find vehement, dizzyingly divergent opinions. Samantar's a war criminal who should be brought to justice, or he's a nationalist hero being scapegoated. He's a demon. He's an Abraham Lincoln.


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