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At 74, Fairfax resident, a former Somali prime minister, may face war-crimes lawsuit

By Brigid Schulte
Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Mohamed Ali Samantar, now of Fairfax City, is the focus of a case coming to the Supreme Court. (By Susan Biddle For The Washington Post)
The case has divided courts. A federal judge in Alexandria ruled that even if the immunity law does not mention individuals, such protection is the "practical equivalent" of immunity offered to a state. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond overturned the lower court, pointing to the law's silence on individual immunity.

Samantar's attorney, Michael Carvin, says that a decision against Samantar would open U.S. officials to lawsuits in other countries.

The accusers' attorney, Patricia Millet, says that Congress and the executive branch "have expressly determined that" it is in the United States' interest to deny "foreign officials who engage in torture and killing a safe haven within the United States."

A hero or a criminal?

Talk to Somalis about Mohamed Ali Samantar and the lawsuit, or cruise through Somali chat rooms on the Internet, and you will find vehement, dizzyingly divergent opinions. Samantar's a war criminal who should be brought to justice, or he's a nationalist hero being scapegoated. He's a demon. He's an Abraham Lincoln.

Mohamed Ali Samantar, whose name will be brought before the Supreme Court this week as that of a war criminal in his native Somalia, has a hard time getting up from the couch in his tidy split-level home in Fairfax City.

Dressed in a pressed charcoal-colored suit for his first interview in many years, Samantar, 74, stiffly hauls himself halfway up from the threadbare brocade sofa. Some of his 13 sons and daughters rush in to help. He stays them with a single gruff word. Slowly, the man who was defense minister and prime minister of the last functioning regime in Somalia stands up on his own.

His five accusers in a civil lawsuit call him a war criminal, a monster living out his golden years with impunity in a quiet suburban neighborhood. This man, they say, was responsible for the unjust torture that they or members of their families suffered in the 1980s. They say Samantar administered a regime of repeated rape, abduction, summary execution and years-long imprisonment in solitary confinement. The accusers want someone, finally, to be held accountable for the well-documented human rights atrocities of that era.

Samantar waves his hand impatiently. The accusations, he says in a deep, throaty voice, are "baseless allegations, with no foundation in truth."

They come from a time when the country was in the midst of the first of many brutal civil wars, pitting north against south, clan against clan. A time when no one's hands were clean. "I served the people rightly and justly," he says. "I always respected the rule of law. I am no monster. I am not going to eat anyone."

With that, his 3-year-old granddaughter, one of the many grandchildren screeching gleefully throughout the house for their traditional Sunday dinner, comes up and kisses him on the lips.

The case before the justices is not about whether Samantar is a war criminal, but whether his accusers, with no viable legal alternatives in their homeland, can sue to make him answer their allegations. The question to be decided, which has potentially powerful policy implications for the United States and its foreign relations, centers on immunity.

Samantar says he has immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act, which protects foreign states from lawsuits. His lawyers argue that, although that law does not mention individuals, it protects his official actions just the same. His accusers, in a suit first filed in federal district court in Virginia in 2004 by the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability, say the law does not shield individuals, especially those who've been out of office for years.

To understand that divide, Somalis say, you must know a Somali's clan and how that clan fared when Samantar and the brutal regime of Mohamed Siad Barre were in power -- from 1969, when the generals took over a weak and corrupt government in a bloodless coup, to 1991, when they fled and the country devolved into the violent anarchy that has reigned since.

To understand the lawsuit, Somali experts say, one must understand the history, from the 19th-century colonial division of the country into northern and southern pieces ruled by Britain and Italy, to the 20th-century Cold War dynamic, in which superpowers propping up friendly regimes averted their glance from human rights abuses.

In 1977, Somalia went to war with Ethiopia seeking to annex an area where a Somali clan called the Ogaden lived. When thousands of Ogaden refugees fleeing that conflict poured into Somalia's north, the clan living in that region, the Isaaq, responded to the influx and what they viewed as harsh government policies. With help from Ethiopia, the Isaaq began an armed rebellion.

Members of the Isaaq clan, such as Bashe Yousuf, one of Samantar's five accusers, see him as the last remnant of a regime bent on destroying not only the rebels but the entire clan.

Yousuf and the others say that even though Samantar didn't perpetrate torture directly, he should be held responsible. "He is the highest-ranking person of that regime," says Yousuf, who spent six years in solitary confinement and is a U.S. citizen living near Atlanta. "He gave the commands."

Aziz Mohamed Deria, another of the plaintiffs, holds Samantar responsible for the day in 1988 when the Somali military burst into his family home and took his father, younger brother and cousin, who were never seen again. "The ones who took them, I don't know where they live, their names," says Deria, now a U.S. citizen and commodities broker in Portland, Ore. "What I know is that Mr. Samantar . . . was in charge of what was happening. If I know the big fish and I know where he lives, why go after the small ones?"

Samantar makes no apologies for the army and its conduct during the civil war. "The people bringing these allegations were, by their own admission, part of a movement that came as invaders from another country and wanted to secede," Samantar says in Somali as one of his sons translates. "In the army, your primary function is to defend the nation from foreign invaders. The army did what it was meant to do -- protect the nation from splitting in two." The plaintiffs deny they were part of the rebellion.

After the fall of the Siad Barre regime in 1991, the Isaaq in the north declared independence and sought to establish the nation of Somaliland, dividing the country in two.

Building a new life

Samantar barely escaped Somalia with his life in 1991. Armed bandits, he said, shot his young daughter in the back four times and his 15-year-old son in the legs as they raced to the border. A bullet grazed the back of Samantar's skull. He lived in Rome with three of his children until 1997, when his wife, who had come to the United States earlier with their four youngest children and then received political asylum, sponsored him.

Since then, he says, he has lived in Fairfax "in relative peace." The living room is adorned with family photos, an elaborate Arabic embroidery of the 99 names of Allah in gold, and a black-and-white photo of a much younger Samantar shaking hands with Margaret Thatcher.

He is a private man, friends and family say, who plays chess, has a warm sense of humor and prays regularly. He is supported, he says, by his 13 children.

David Rawson, the U.S. deputy chief of mission in Somalia from 1986 to 1988, says he has been puzzled why Samantar, of all Somali officials of that era, is the one being sued. Real power, he says, was concentrated in President Siad Barre and a small group of his clan members.

"Samantar was so far out of the decision-making loop," Rawson says. "But Samantar comes from a small clan. There's no political cost to going after someone vulnerable like that, as opposed to going after someone who comes from a significant family or important clan."

Samantar's clan, the Tumaal, is one of a handful of small clans considered outcasts.

Asked whether he feels remorse for the brutality of his era in power, Samantar's answer is abrupt. "It's in the past," he says, pouring Splenda from a yellow packet to sweeten his bitter chai tea.

Staff writer Robert Barnes and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.