Bay Activists Win Fight to Get Human Rights Cases Tried in USA
- News for Anarchists & Activists:
Published on Sunday, August 11, 2002 in the San Francisco
Bay Activists Win in Fight to Get Human Rights Cases Tried
by Robert Collier
Bay Area organizations, backed by high-powered corporate
attorneys, are taking the lead in a growing movement that
uses U.S. courts to go after abusers of human rights
Far from being just a rhetorical exercise, the potential
impact of the movement became clear three weeks ago, when
the Center for Justice and Accountability, based in San
Francisco, won a $54.6 million judgment against two former
Salvadoran generals living in Florida.
The ruling in favor of San Francisco high school teacher
Carlos Mauricio and two other Salvadorans, who were tortured
by security forces during El Salvador's civil war in the
early 1980s, was the movement's biggest legal victory to
More than a dozen other cases are under way. The guiding
doctrine is "universal jurisdiction" -- a legal concept
stating that war crimes and other human rights cases can be
tried in any nation's courts, no matter where the abuses
took place or where the alleged offenders currently live.
"Universal jurisdiction is gaining force, and although it's
far from clear how far the courts will take it, there are
more and more cases all the time," says Naomi Roht-Arriaza,
a professor of international law at Hastings College of the
Law in San Francisco.
Roht-Arriaza points out that the two federal laws that
support the concept are not new -- the Alien Tort Claims Act
dates from 1789, and the Torture Victims Protection Act was
enacted in 1991.
"There haven't been changes in the laws, but there's much
more awareness by judges and litigants that these laws are
out there," she says.
The Center for Justice and Accountability, a six-person
nonprofit organization with only a $550,000 annual budget,
is pursuing five other cases against individuals from China,
Indonesia, Chile, Serbia and Honduras.
In one case, Gen. Johny Lumintang, the No. 2 official in the
Indonesian army, is being sued by six victims of human
rights abuses by troops under his command in East Timor.
Lumintang initially chose to ignore the case -- a
miscalculation, as he found out in September when a
Washington, D.C., court awarded the plaintiffs $66 million.
Now, the court is deciding whether to accept Lumintang's
request to contest the charges.
Other cases brought by the center include:
-- China. Six Falun Gong practitioners are suing Liu Qi,
mayor of Beijing and president of the Beijing Organizing
Committee for the 2008 Olympics, for his alleged
responsibility for police repression of the religious group.
Liu was served with the complaint at San Francisco
International Airport in February.
-- Chile. Armando Fernandez-Larios, a former Chilean army
officer living in Miami, is being sued for his alleged
involvement in the "Caravan of Death" - - a helicopter death
squad that tortured and killed at least 72 political
Meanwhile, another significant victory may be near in a case
brought by three Bay Area activist groups -- Global
Exchange, Sweatshop Watch and Asian Law Caucus -- against 26
clothing corporations over abuses against Chinese workers in
Saipan, a U.S. island in the western Pacific. Sources say
all but one of the defendants, which include San Francisco
firms Gap and Levi Strauss, are offering to pay the
ex-workers $20 million and create a monitoring system to
prevent labor abuses in their factories. A settlement is
expected in the coming weeks.
But the universal-jurisdiction movement has had its
setbacks, even in countries that have laws strongly
supporting the concept.
Two years ago, Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon failed in his
attempts to extradite former Chilean dictator Augusto
Pinochet to stand trial in Spain for human rights abuses. In
April, a Belgian appeals court threw out a lawsuit against
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon over his alleged role in
massacres of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in 1982. That
case is being appealed to the Belgian Supreme Court, and the
nation's parliament is debating a law that would allow the
trial to go forward.
Although most of the U.S. cases originate with low-budget
nonprofit groups such as the Center for Justice and
Accountability, much of the actual prosecution is carried
out by corporate law firms that donate their services pro
bono. In a complex, long-running case, the value of these
services can amount to millions of dollars.
The Salvadoran plaintiffs' case, for example, was led by a
three-lawyer team from Morrison & Foerster, an international
law firm based in San Francisco. The Caravan of Death
plaintiffs are being represented by attorneys from Wilson,
Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati, a large corporate law firm based
in Palo Alto.
On Monday, Morrison & Foerster is scheduled to receive the
American Bar Association's annual award for pro bono work.
Last year, the firm gave $21 million in free legal services
to nonprofit groups or poor individuals.
According to Amnesty International, there are hundreds of
foreign human rights abusers now residing in the United
States -- many of them, like the Salvadoran generals, in
Their former victims, along with organizations like the
Center for Justice and Accountability and their teams of
blue-chip lawyers, have plenty of work left to do.
Now available: _The Unspeakable and Others_
All my fiction through 2001 and more. Intro by S.T. Joshi.
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News for Anarchists & Activists:
Said Smygo, the iconoclast of Zothique: "Bear a hammer with
thee always, and break down any terminus on which is
written: 'So far shalt thou pass, but no further go.'"
--Clark Ashton Smith