Tuesday, March 23, 2010

IN THE NEWS: Google Takes Action

Human Rights USA applauds Google's decision to turn its words into action by shutting down its search service in the Chinese mainland. As we shared with you several months ago, Google threatened to no longer bow to Beijing's demands following a cyber-attack that allegedly originated in China. Yesterday, Google stated it would stop censoring search results on its site in China and began to route users through its site in Hong Kong.

Unfortunately, Chinese government censors are now censoring results routed through the Google Hong Kong sites. Click here to see Google's Mainland China service availability. Stay tuned here for further developments....

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

IN THE NEWS: Case Against Rumsfeld for Mistreatment of American Citizens Goes Forward

Last Friday, on March 5, 2010, a U.S. judge Judge Wayne R. Anderson (N.D. Ill.) allowed a suit against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to go forward (in legalese: the case survived a motion to dismiss). The complaint, which alleges that Rumsfeld authorized torture against U.S. citizens, survived despite the defendant’s vigorous claims of immunity (see our earlier blog entry for more discussion of immunity issues).

According to the Complaint, in 2005, Donald Vance and Nathan Ertel, both American citizens, traveled to Iraq to work for an Iraqi security firm, Shield Group Security (SGS). After suspecting that SGS was paying off local sheiks for influence in obtaining government contracts, Vance and Ertel informed the FBI in Chicago and U.S. officials in Iraq. When SGS officials threatened their lives for revealing company information, Vance and Ertel sought protection from the U.S. military. However, after interrogating Vance and Ertel at the US Embassy, U.S. officials imprisoned them and refused to grant them habeas corpus petitions.

The plaintiffs allege that once they were in custody at a U.S. military base, officials detained these two American citizens as “persons of interest” by invoking authority Rumsfeld had previously granted. Vance was detained for three months and Ertel was detained for over a month without charges and forced to live in extremely unsanitary conditions. During this time, the plaintiffs claim that U.S. officials used tortuous interrogation techniques to attempt to solicit confessions. Some of these techniques included the use of solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme cold and loud music, and other similarly cruel tactics.
Eventually, both American citizens were released without charges and allowed to return to the U.S. On December 18, 2006, plaintiffs initiated this lawsuit against Rumsfeld for authorizing the alleged constitutional violations they endured during their detention.

For more coverage, see Business Week, the Wall Street Journal, and the Huffington Post.

Prepared by International Justice Project Intern Daniel Cousineau.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

IN THE NEWS: Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Samantar Case

The Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday regarding whether former government officials who commit human rights violations should enjoy immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA).

The petitioner in the case, Mohamed Ali Samantar, served as Vice President, Minister of Defense, and Prime Minister under General Siad Barre in Somalia during a period of intense conflict in the region. Under the command of Samantar, who is now living just outside of Washington, DC, the Somali Armed Forces committed numerous atrocities against Somali citizens. (For more background on Mr. Samantar and the cases leading to the Supreme Court, see our previous post.)

Yesterday’s arguments before the Supreme Court addressed (1) whether a foreign state’s immunity from suit under the FSIA extends to an individual; and (2) whether an individual who is no longer an official of a foreign state retains immunity for acts committed while s/he was acting in that capacity.

In non-legal terms: We don’t allow people to sue foreign governments because that would be a political mess... but what about individual government officials? Who can be held accountable for wrongs they committed and who can use a government position as a reason not to participate in a lawsuit?

Samantar’s lawyers argued that individuals who acted in the official capacity of a foreign government should be protected by FSIA (and thus not be subject to a lawsuit) because “such suits are the equivalent of a suit against the state directly.” Samantar’s attorney argued that while the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA) allows torture survivors and their families to bring claims against those who violated their human rights, that statute must be interpreted with existing immunity principles. In other words, FSIA should trump the TVPA. Samantar’s attorneys argue that if there is no explicit exception from Congress or waiver of immunity by the foreign state where a potential defendant is or was an official, no one should be able to hold that person accountable for actions taken in his or her official capacity. Samantar’s lawyers argued that the legislative history shows that the FSIA was intended to codify the common law and international law understandings of foreign governmental immunity and there is no mention of individuals because there was no dispute that the law would apply to individuals.

Attorneys for the Somalis who suffered under the Barre regime argued that the silence of the law shows Congress’ intent not to protect individuals from suit. The attorneys also noted that the TVPA was passed after FSIA and specifically gives torture victims and their families access to U.S. courts. The TVPA, they argued, imposed personal liability on individuals, including those who were acting with actual or apparent authority of the foreign state. Furthermore, if every act of a governmental official amounted to an act of the state, the cause of action under the TVPA would not exist. So the question becomes: can you torture someone and then avoid being held accountable by claiming you were acting on behalf of a foreign government when you did so?

The Deputy Solicitor General argued the Court should allow some lawsuits against individuals, while allowing the U.S. State Department to weigh in on immunity for such individuals.

Nina Totenberg gives a sneak peak at the arguments prior to arguments in Court today.
SCOTUSBlog has short podcasts of attorneys from both sides explaining their arguments.
SCOTUSBlog analysis of the arguments.
Transcript of yesterday’s argument.

Prepared with assistance from IJP Intern Christiaan Segura.