Supreme Court Upholds Right of Action to Sue for Claims of Torture Against Human Rights Abusers

June 29, 2004 12:00 am

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NEW YORK – The Supreme Court today rejected the Bush Administration’s attempt to gut the Alien Tort Claims Act, one of the oldest laws of the land, and reaffirmed the rights of victims of egregious human rights violations to bring civil actions against their abusers in U.S. courts.

“We are gratified that the Court has rejected the Bush Administration’s attempt to close the door to the federal courts to human rights abuse victims,” said Paul Hoffman, lead counsel for Dr. Alvarez-Machain and former legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

“The Court has recognized that the Alien Tort Claims Act provides the victims of torture, genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and other egregious human rights violations with access to the federal courts to hear their claims,” Hoffman said.

Although the Court’s decision in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, (03-339) rejected the plaintiff’s specific claim of arbitrary detention, the legal principle it announced will, for example, allow torture victims to seek damages from their torturers in United States courts, even if the torture occurred overseas.

At the same time, the Court held in the companion case of United States v. Alvarez-Machain, (03-485) that the federal government could not be sued for damages for human rights abuses if the alleged abuse occurred outside the United States.

The case arose when Dr. Humberto Alvarez-Machain was kidnapped by Francisco Sosa, who had been hired by officials at the Drug Enforcement Agency to apprehend Machain at his office in Guadalajara, Mexico. Alvarez-Machain sought relief through the Alien Tort Claims Act and also sought a right to bring claims against the U.S. government under the Federal Tort Claims Act for its role in arranging his kidnapping.

ACLU Legal Director Steven R. Shapiro said “today’s decision is especially notable one day after the Court held that United States courts must also be open to the Guantanamo detainees and American citizens held as enemy combatants. The rule of law cannot be vindicated if the courts are closed.”

Today’s decision is online at: http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/03-339.ZS.html

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