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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Somalia Asks Kerry for Immunity for Alleged War Criminal in U.S.

In one of its first acts since being granted diplomatic recognition by the United States,  the new government of Somalia wants the Obama administration to shield a former general and prime minister from a suit that found him responsible for atrocities a quarter century ago.

During the 1980s, Gen. Mohamed Ali Samantar commanded military forces that carried out a brutal repression of the Isaaq people in northern Somalia, including countless atrocities, according to the Center for Justice and Accountability, a San Francisco-based human rights group.

Samantar, who later became prime minister under the dictatorship of Mohamed Siad Barre, fled to the United States after the regime was overthrown by warlords in 1991. Washington has not recognized a Somali government since then.

In 2004, plaintiffs who survived the atrocities committed by Samantar’s troops filed suit for damages in U.S. District Court in Eastern Virginia.  Samantar, living in Fairfax, Va., claimed immunity as a head of state. 

In 2012, following a Supreme Court rejection of Samantar’s immunity claims, Judge Leonie Brinkema affirmed the decision and awarded the victims $21 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

Samantar, who had earlier filed for bankruptcy, appeared personally in court on Feb. 23, 2012 and conceded to both liability and damages.

In his letter Tuesday to Secretary of State John Kerry, delivered to the American embassy in Nairobi, the current Somali prime minister, Abdi Farah Shirdon, claimed that “Mr. Samantar’s actions were all undertaken in his official capacity with the government of Somalia...” and thus deserve immunity--a position soundly rejected by U.S. courts.

Shirdon further claimed the case against Samantar “is injurious to the historic, ongoing process of peace and reconciliation among clans and political factions within Somalia...”

In 2005, the George W. Bush administration sided with Samantar, but in 2011, under Barack Obama, the State Department changed sides, filing  “statement of interest” that Samantar was not entitled to immunity. Shirdon wants the State Department to toggle back to the status quo ante.

On Wednesday, Samantar’s Alexandria attorney, Joseph P. Drennan recalled Hillary Clinton's pledge in January "to be a good partner, a steadfast partner, to Somalia as Somalia makes the decisions for its own future,” and said he expects the State Department to accede to Shirdon’s request for immunity for Samantar.

“To do otherwise would be an egregious affront to a brave government that is being held up as a model in fighting al-Shabbab, and recovering from decades of inter-clan strife,” Drennan told SpyTalk.

Kerry, embroiled in negotiations over Syria, among other front-burner items, is not expected to make a decision on the case in the near future.