The mere mention of Somalia often brings up visions of great violence for many, especially Americans still reeling from the Black Hawk Down incident. And given the current state of affairs in southern Somalia (where most of the fighting occurs), this image will like remain for some time.
For some Somalis who fled, it was not from the chaos of the civil war, but from Siad Barre’s regime that had committed serious human rights abuses. In particular, Barre, in order to put down the uprising from the resistant group Somali Nation Movement (SNM), had resorted to targeting civilians from areas where they were considered popular. The SNM was largely an Isaaq (a Somali tribe) dominated movement and Barre had created a policy meant to pressure this base in hopes that they would turn on the SNM.
This pressure took the form of bombings of Isaaq dominated civilian areas in response to SNM offences against the military, kidnapping and torture of civilians by the National Security Service (NSS), mass executions of men, women and children, and other human rights abuses.
This oppression went on for a decade from 1981 to 1991 and ended only with the fall of Barre’s government. To understand the depravity of Barre’s rule, the organization Genocide Watch has labeled what occurred during the year 1988 (when the worst atrocities were committed) as extermination. Barre, at that point, sought to replace the Isaaq with his mother’s tribe, the Marehan, who inhabit the Eastern part of Ethiopia, after failing to seize the area from Ethiopia during the failed 1977 war.
Unfortunately, Barre, upon realizing that his government was collapsing, fled to Nigeria, where he remained until his death in 1995. But many of his accomplices still remain at large and have yet to face justice.
One of them is Muhammed Ali Samatar, who was a general in the Somali Armed Forces, and served as Defense Minister and Prime Minister from 1980 to 1986 and 1987 to 1990, respectively. Afterwards, Samatar fled to the United States where he was recognized by one of his victims who, along with four others living outside the U.S., filed a suit against him.
The suit was brought by the Centre for Justice and Accountability (CJA) on behalf of the torture survivors. The victims are:
Bashe Abdi Yousuf, a young business man detained, tortured, and kept in solitary confinement for over six years; Aziz Mohamed Deria, whose father and brother were abducted by officials and never seen again; John Doe I, whose two brothers were summarily executed by soldiers; Jane Doe, a university student detained by officials, raped 15 times, and put in solitary confinement for over three years; and John Doe II, who was imprisoned for his clan affiliation and was shot by a firing squad, but miraculously survived by hiding under other dead bodies. The case aims to hold former Minister of Defense and Prime Minister Mohamed Ali Samantar accountable for the egregious human rights abuses perpetrated by subordinates acting under his direct authority.
But this search for justice has worried some of the pro-Israel crowd, fearing that the case Yousuf et al. v. Samatar can set a precedent which would result in “a rash of lawsuits of this kind against Israel,” warned Alyza Lewin, an attorney with the firm of Lewin & Lewin.
While American law does not allow citizens to file criminal lawsuits against foreign officials, civil lawsuits against foreign officials are still an open option. And this is exactly what has worried pro-Israel individuals and organizations. Especially given that Tzipi Livni had to cancel a trip to Britain for fear of arrest after a warrant was issued. And it seems that other pro-Israel organizations see this case as a threat to the interests of Israel, resulting in the Lewin & Lewin firm filing a friend-of-the-court brief in favor of Samantar and against making foreign officials vulnerable to civil lawsuits on behalf of the Zionist Organization of America, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Agudath Israel of America, and the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists. The co-executive director of American Jewish Congress, Marc Stern sided with Samatar in the briefs they have filed.
The only pro-Israel organization that differed on this issue was the Anti-Defamation League, which argued in its brief that while perpetrators of serious human rights violations overseas should be able to face justice in American courts, there is a need to “protect the ability of lower courts to dismiss meritless claims brought for political or other improper purposes.”
One should note that the pro-Israel crowd is not alone in their support of Samatar, the Saudi government, perhaps also fearing that members of their government are vulnerable given their human rights record, has filed a brief on behalf of Samatar.
In any case, all parties are waiting with bated breathe for the Supreme Courts decision. The CJA does have a strong case and given that the law is vague and does not restrict civil lawsuits, it seems that they will win. But this would not be the end for pro-Israel advocates who can lobby the government to alter the law.
Personally, the actions taken by the pro-Israel crowd have angered me. Do they really have to stoop so low to promote what they believe are the interests of Israel? Never mind that these Somalis may never find justice else where, and that the case has little to with Israel. The actions taken by these organizations cannot be justified on a moral level, especially if one considers that this is meant to block out possible lawsuits from Palestinians through human rights organizations. It’s clear that this would only serve to benefit oppressors like Samatar, and oppressive states Israel and Saudi Arabia and this is exactly why the three have joined forces.
Common propaganda from the pro-Israel crowd, hails the law and order in Israel, but often in practice little justice can be found for Palestinians. Indeed, all one needs to do is refer to Yesh Din, an Israel human rights group, findings on the success of police investigations in the West Bank. ‘Yesh Din reports that of these 205 investigations “police processing and prosecutorial review have concluded in 163 files. Out of those 163, only in 13 (8%) of the cases were indictments filed against defendants. One case file was lost and never investigated, and 149 (91%) investigation files were closed without filing any indictments against suspects”’. This is not some anomaly but just another part of the campaign to prevent Palestinians from seeking remedy in courts outside of Israel (which even when they do rule in favor of Palestinians, their rulings are often ignored).
Also, I want to make it clear that Barre did not just target the Isaaq tribe during his rule, the Marjeerteen and Hawiye clans were also harmed. I only focused on the Isaaq tribe because the victims in the court case were from that clan.
Amyro89 is Somali-Canadian and is hoping to pursue a career political science. She has always been interested in politics but was only recently pushed into the issue of Israel-Palestine.