U.S. District Court Decides that Former Somali Government Official Is Not Entitled to Common Law Immunity and Is Liable for $21 Million of Compensatory and Punitive Damages

Mohamed Ali Samantar

As discussed in a prior post, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 decided that former Somali General Mohamed Ali Samantar was not covered by the immunity provisions of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) and remanded the case to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia to determine if he was entitled to common law immunity.

This was in a case brought by four Somalis against Samantar for money damages under two U.S. statutes–the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA). The complaint alleged that Samantar aided and abetted, and had command responsibility for, extrajudicial killing; arbitrary detention; torture; cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; crimes against humanity; and war crimes in Somalia from 1969 through 1991.[1]

U.S. District Court, Alexandria, VA

After remand, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema of the Eastern District of Virginia in Alexandria [2] first decided that Samantar was not entitled to any common law immunity. She then decided that $21 million of compensatory and punitive damages were appropriate. Those decisions will now be reviewed.

No Common Law Immunity

On February 14, 2011, the U.S. Government provided the court with a letter from Harold Koh, the State Department’s Legal Adviser, stating that the Department had determined that Samantar did not enjoy immunity from this lawsuit. The key reason for this decision was the lack of any recognized Somali government that could assert or waive any immunity he might enjoy.

The formal U.S. filing with the court provided the relevant common law of immunity for former foreign government officials or what the filing called “Foreign Official Immunity Doctrine.” Here are the key points of that common law or doctrine without the filing’s citations of legal authority:

  • Under the law and practice of nations, a foreign sovereign is generally immune from lawsuits in the territory of another sovereign.
  • Until the 1976 enactment of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), U.S. federal courts routinely “‘surrendered’ jurisdiction over suits against foreign sovereigns ‘on recognition, allowance and certification of the asserted immunity by the political branch of the government charged with the conduct of foreign affairs when its certificate to that effect was presented to the court.'”
  • “This deferential judicial posture was not merely discretionary [for the courts], but was rooted in the separation of powers.” Under the Constitution, the executive branch of the federal government had the responsibility for foreign affairs.
  • “The immunity of a foreign state was, early on, generally understood to extend not only to the state, heads of state, and diplomatic officials, but also to other officials in an official capacity.”
  • Any immunity protecting foreign officials for their official acts ultimately belongs to the sovereign, not the official. Thus, the foreign state must claim or waive any such immunity for the official. Where there is no recognized government, there is no one that can assert such a claim or make such a waiver.
  • When a former foreign official becomes a resident of the U.S., as Samantar had since 1997, the U.S. has a right to exercise jurisdiction over that individual.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court in this case agreed with the government’s position that FSIA did not apply to the issue of immunity for current or former foreign government officials. Instead, that issue was left to the State Department, whose decisions should be accepted by the courts.
Judge Leonie Brinkema

On February 15, 2011 (the day after the above government filing), Judge Brinkema issued a one-page order. It stated, “The government has determined that the defendant does not have foreign official immunity. Accordingly, defendant’s common law sovereign immunity defense is no longer before the Court . . . .” The court then directed the parties to agree upon a date to argue the remaining issues in the defendant’s dismissal motion.

Samantar’s motions for reconsideration of this order and for a stay pending appeal were denied. Nevertheless, he appealed to the Fourth Circuit (No. 11-1479), and on May 16, 2012, the appeal was argued to the appellate court, which as of September 13th had not yet issued its decision. In my opinion, he has virtually no chance of success on this appeal.

The Court’s Determination of Damages

The district court on August 28, 2012, determined that each of the seven plaintiffs was entitled to $1 million of compensatory damages plus $2 million of punitive damages for a total judgment of $21 million. How the court came to this determination is a fascinating story.

After the court’s rejection of his immunity defense, Samantar moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the latest complaint failed to state a claim for his secondary liability, that the TVPA did not retroactively apply to acts before 1991 and that the claims were untimely and nonjusticiable. That motion was denied on December 22, 2011.

Two days before the scheduled start of a jury trial on February 21, 2012, Samantar advised the court that he had filed for bankruptcy in the Eastern District of Virginia (1-12-bk-11085). The automatic stay of this case by the bankruptcy filing was soon lifted, and the start of the jury trial in the main case was rescheduled for February 23rd.

On February 23rd Samantar’s attorney informed the court that Samantar intended to take a default rather than contest liability and damages. The court then asked the defendant questions about this decision and was satisfied that he knowingly and voluntarily had conceded liability.

On August 28th the court filed its Memorandum Opinion that made extensive findings and legal conclusions regarding Samantar’s liability under theories of aiding and abetting and command responsibility.

After noting that compensatory damages were recoverable for physical and psychological injuries, the court found that the plaintiffs had provided the following “credible and compelling testimony of cognizable injuries stemming from the alleged violations:”

  • Plaintiff Yousuf had endured torture and seven years of imprisonment, largely in solitary confinement that had affected his memory and emotional health. He suffers from depression and nightmares and still relives the five-step length of his cell.
  • Plaintiff Baralle was tortured and barely escaped execution. He continues to experience pain and occasional shaking on the left side of his body as well as flashbacks. His two brothers were executed, and Baralle and his family have taken responsibility for raising his brothers’ children.
  • Plaintiff Gulaid went before a firing squad, but escaped death. He continues to suffer nightmares, flashbacks and anxiety, memory loss, high-blood pressure and poor vision.
  • Plaintiff Aziz and his sister testified about the extrajudicial executions of their father, who was the family’s breadwinner, and their brother.

The court then found that each of the three plaintiffs suing in their own capacity and each of the four decedents’ estates would be awarded compensatory damages of $1 million.

After finding that there was evidence of Samantar’s conduct having been intentional, malicious, wanton and reckless and that ATC and TVPA cases commonly awarding punitive damages, the court determined that $2 million of such damages for each of the seven claimants was appropriate. Such amount, said the court, reflected the “seriousness of [his] . . . uncontested conduct;” [eased] . . . any burden on plaintiffs in having to bring this case;” and recognized the award of substantial compensatory damages, the lack of any financial gain by Samantar and his prospective bankruptcy.

The execution of the judgment was stayed pending resolution of the bankruptcy case.


The ability of the plaintiffs to collect any significant amount of their $21million judgment is highly questionable. On April 3, 2012, the Chapter 7 Bankruptcy Trustee reported Samantar had no assets available for distribution to creditors, but for unknown reasons that report was withdrawn on June 11th.

On August 23rd the plaintiffs commenced an adversary proceeding against Samantar in the bankruptcy court to have his judgment debt to them determined to be a non-dischargeable debt for willful and malicious injury under Bankruptcy Code § 727 (1:12-ap-01356). If the bankruptcy court agrees, this merely keeps open the possibility of future collections on the judgment if Samantar obtains any future assets or income.Judge L:

[1]  This case was supported by the Center for Justice and Accountability, an human rights NGO based in San Francisco, California.

[2]  Judge Brinkema presided over the criminal trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was convicted for conspiring to kill U.S. citizens in the 9/11 attacks. I appeared before her in another case, one involving Scientology.

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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