Ferdinand Marcos' flight to the United States has sparked new interest in a rarely used U.S. law that allows victims of human rights abuses to sue their tormentors, even if the alleged crimes were committed in other countries.

In what appears to be the first such action against Marcos since he fled to the United States two weeks ago, 13 Filipinos have filed suit against the former Philippine president, accusing him of imprisoning and torturing them.

The suit, filed last week in federal court in San Francisco, asks for a jury trial on charges that Marcos "violated the law of nations."

According to human rights attorneys, the suit relies heavily on a statute adopted in 1789 by the First Congress that provides federal jurisdiction for civil suits to recover damages committed by aliens that violate international law, no matter where those wrongs were committed.

The law has been applied successfully in at least one widely cited case in recent years. But in that case, the family of the victim, a 17-year-old Paraguayan youth, was unable to collect damages because the defendant had fled the country.

John Hill, one of the two attorneys representing the 13 plaintiffs in the California case, said the suit had been filed against Marcos as the sole defendant "because of who he is and because of his ability to respond in damages."

The plaintiffs are each seeking $55 million in damages for a total of $715 million.

One of the plaintiffs is Fluellen M. Ortigas. A former legislative assistant to slain Philippine opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr., Ortigas, 37, is now an insurance salesman in the San Francisco Bay area. He said he was jailed from 1972 until 1976 under the Marcos regime because of his opposition activities and ties to Aquino. In an interview last week, he said Marcos personally signed the arrest warrants of the 13 plaintiffs and personally blocked their release.

"That is why we pinpointed him as the principal target," Ortigas said.

Ortigas said he suffered body blows during his imprisonment, but said some of the others, such as Ramon Veluz, a student activist, were tortured more severely. Veluz, detained three times during a six-year period beginning in 1972, charged in the lawsuit that he was tortured with electrical shocks attached to his thumb and genitals and had his front teeth knocked out when a .45-caliber pistol was shoved into his mouth.

As of Saturday, attorneys said they had not yet been able to serve Marcos with a copy of the complaint. Attorney Hill said a Honolulu sheriff had been turned away when he attempted to serve the complaint Wednesday at the U.S. Air Force base where Marcos and his family are staying.

Human rights lawyers said that the case against Marcos will be more difficult to prove than the case that set the legal precedent for the use of the 1789 law in human rights violations.

In that case, a federal appeals court in New York ruled in 1980 that a Paraguayan doctor, Joel Filartiga, could sue the police official, Americo Pena-Irala, for allegedly torturing the doctor's son to death in Asuncion, Paraguay. Filartiga filed the suit after the police official was discovered by immigration authorities to be living in Brooklyn.

A federal judge later awarded $10.4 million to the family of the youth and held Pena-Irala, who was inspector general of police in Asuncion at the time of the 1976 killing, liable for the damages, but he had already fled the United States.

"The Filartiga case was unusual in that the person who was sued carried out the act of torture. . . There was no ambiguity whatsoever," said Diane Orentlicher, deputy director of the New York-based Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights. The committee issued an extensive report on human rights abuses in the Philippines last year. In any case against Marcos, she said, the law is unclear because "the statute does not say how much direct responsibility there has to be."

Congress is considering legislation that would establish federal jurisdiction for victims of torture and extrajudicial killings.