Somalia requests U.S. to grant immunity for former PM

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Somalia’s newly recognized government is asking the State Department to grant immunity to a former prime minister who was found responsible in a U.S. court for human-rights abuses.

The letter issued this week by the Federal Republic of Somalia’s Prime Minister, Abdi Farah Shirdon, seeks immunity for Mohamed Ali Samantar, who now lives in Fairfax but was a top official in Dictator Siad Barre's regime in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Last year, a federal judge in Alexandria awarded seven Somali victims a $21 million judgment against Samantar for orchestrating a campaign of torture and killings against members of the Isaaq clan. Samantar fought the case for years, arguing that U.S. courts had no right to pass judgment on internal Somali affairs. On the eve of trial, he declared bankruptcy and entered a default judgment while continuing to pursue his immunity claim in an appeals court. While he accepted legal liability for the killings, he denied wrongdoing.

At the time, Samantar was denied immunity in large part because there was no functioning government to claim immunity on his behalf. After Barre's regime collapsed in 1991 the country lacked a true central government for more than 20 years. But in January, the U.S. formally recognized the new Somali government.

Samantar's attorney, Joseph Peter Drennan, said he expects the U.S. to honor Somalia's request and the case to be dismissed. The 4th U.S. Circuit of Appeals rejected an appeal filed by Samantar last year, but Drennan said Friday he will file papers with the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday to have the case tossed out.

"We fully expect the U.S. will honor this request for immunity," Drennan said. "To do otherwise would represent an affront to the government of Somalia."

State Department press officers did not respond to questions about the case Friday.

The fact that the Somali prime minister, who was himself an official in the Barre regime, requested the immunity so soon after receiving U.S. recognition reflects the importance of the case to the Somali government, Drennan said. He said the new government is seeking to move beyond the old score-settling of clan-based grievances, and lawsuits like the one brought in Virginia by members of the Isaaq clan "represent a threat to efforts to promote peace and reconciliation."

Kathy Roberts, a lawyer for the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability, said Somalia's immunity request for Samantar is disappointing.

"In his meeting with Secretary of State Clinton in January, (Somali) President (Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud) made a commitment to restore faith in governance and the rule of law. Embracing impunity for war criminals is a disappointing beginning," she said in a statement.

The Somali prime minister's request for immunity for Samantar goes to the State Department. If the State Department decides to honor it, it would be up to a court to dismiss the case.

In rejecting Samantar's immunity claim last year, the appeals court said the executive branch's recommendation is a big factor in determining immunity, but not the only one. It also said abuses such as torture and extrajudicial killings, like those Samantar was accused of, may never be eligible for protection.

The case against Samantar was initially filed in 2004 and has already been heard once by the U.S. Supreme Court. Initially the district court judge granted immunity to Samantar but the Supreme Court reinstated the case.