The U.S. government has given its support to a suit seeking establish that foreign torturers who come to the United States can be sued here for crimes committed in their own countries.
In response to a request from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the Justice and State department wrote an amicus curiae brief supporting the plaintiffs' claim that torture violates the law of nations and that there is a judicially enforceable civil remedy in the United States for torture committed abroad.
The government argues that international law has changed over the years.
"Before the turn of the century and even after, it was generally thought that a nation's treatment of its own citizens was beyond the purview of international law. [But] today a nation has an obligation under international law to respect the right of its citizens to be free of official torture," the brief says.
If the United States refused to recognize the right of private individuals to sue their torturers in U.S. courts it "might seriously damage the credibility of our nation's commitment to the protection of human rights," the Justice and State departments say.
The suit was brought by the father and sister of a Paraguyan youth who allegedly was tortured to death by a Paraguyan policeman, Americo Pena-Irala.
It was filed in Brooklyn after immigration officials discovered Pena living there without a valid visa. The section of the U.S. Code under which the suit was brought gives U.S. courts jurisdiction over violations of the law of nations, but the law had only been used for commercial claims, not human rights cases.
Pena's attorney told the district court that applying the law to human rights violations would open the door "for any alien who chances to catch an official of a foreign government in the United States against whom he thinks he has a claim."
Pena, who was arrested in April 1979, was deported to Paraguay after the district court ruled it did not have jurisdiction in the case.
Dr. Joel Filartiga and Dolly Filartiga then appealed to the 2nd Circiut, which asked the State Department for its opinion. Joelito Filartiga, 17, died after being tortured in a case that has caused widespread controversy in Paraguay.