As discussed in a prior post, on February 15, 2011, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia decided that a former Somali General, Mohamed Ali Samantar, was not entitled to the former foreign government official immunity under federal common law.
On November 2, 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed this decision in an opinion that provided an interesting analysis of the role and power of the U.S. Department of State and of the federal courts in making decisions on immunity of foreign officials in civil lawsuits.
First, the appellate court said that there was common law immunity for a foreign head-of-state and that the courts must give “absolute deference” to the State Department’s position on such claims. This conclusion was based on the U.S. Constitution’s assignment in Article II, § 3, of the power to “receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers” to the Executive Branch. The State Department, however, has never recognized Samantar as the head of state for Somalia. Therefore, this type of immunity was not applicable in this case.
Second, the Fourth Circuit held that federal common law also provided immunity for foreign government officials who were not heads of state and that State Department’s determinations on such claims carried “substantial weight” for the courts, but were “not controlling.”
The latter type of immunity, said the Fourth Circuit, is based on the “foreign official’s actions, not his or her status, and therefore applies whether the individual is currently a government official or not.” But not all such actions are entitled to such immunity. Indeed, the court concluded that “under international and [U.S.] domestic law, officials from other countries are not entitled to foreign official immunity for jus cogens violations, even if the acts were performed in the defendant’s official capacity.”
The appellate court correctly observed, “A jus cogens norm, also known as a ‘preemptory norm of general international law,’ can be defined as ‘a norm accepted and recognized by the international community of States as a whole as a norm from which no derogation is permitted and which can be modified only by a subsequent norm of general international law having the same character.” Moreover, “Prohibitions against the acts involved in this case–torture, summary execution and prolonged arbitrary imprisonment–are among these universally agreed-upon [jus cogens] norms.”
In this case, the Fourth Circuit added, the State Department suggested to the court that Samantar was not entitled to the foreign official immunity because there was no Somali government to assert this immunity for him and because he was a permanent resident alien of the U.S. These are additional factors supporting the denial of this immunity to Samantar.
Therefore, Samantar was not entitled to the latter type of immunity.