Accused War Criminals Make Home in U.S.

By the time the Barre government collapsed in 1991, throwing the country into deeper chaos, Yousuf was living in America as an American citizen working to forget his past, yet still haunted by nightmares of his ordeal.

"I wake up and sweat almost all night sometimes," Yousuf said, "because I'm scared."

In 1998, Yousuf's nightmare came to life. Mohamed Samantar, Somalia's prime minister by that point, escaped the collapse of the Barre regime and eventually made his way into the Unites States. Samantar settled in a split-level house in the Washington D.C. suburbs.

"I couldn't believe it, that somebody who has done so much harm to so many people could be living in the United States," Yousuf said.

Yousuf said Samantar was at the helm of the atrocities committed in Somaliland. Samantar's attorney, however, denied those claims, saying that Samantar was received in Washington while in office and was granted asylum in the United States in 1997.

"He's somebody who seems to be a wonderful family man," said Julian Spirer, the attorney. "He's very much the sort of person you would want to have as a neighbor."

Subject to U.S. Law?

But Yousuf isn't buying it. He, along with four other Somalis subjected to torture and human rights abuses, filed a civil suit with the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) against Samantar. The suit seeks to hold the former general responsible for alleged abuses as the head of the Somali regimes' military.

"The issue here is whether Gen. Samantar is held to be subject to U.S. laws while he's living in this country," said Pamela Merchant, executive director of the CJA.

According the Merchant, Samantar is one of possibly 1,000 alleged war criminals living here in the United States. The CJA's main mission is to hold the suspects responsible for the atrocities they are alleged to have committed in their foreign countries.

"I think the first time you realize that somebody's living in your community that was responsible for serious human rights abuses, it can be shocking," Merchant said.

According to his family, Samantar is gravely ill, but his legal team led by Spirer contends his innocence on the charges.

"There hasn't been any proof yet. At this point these are strictly allegations," Spirer said.

Spirer said Samantar most likely was aware of the atrocities being committed in Somaliland, but there was very little he could do about them.

"Did he know that these were going on?" Spirer asked. "I expect he did know they were going on. If the question is, could he do anything about them? There was probably a very limited amount that he could do."

Merchant disagreed with that assumption.

"He was in charge of the military," she said. "He was the person who could stop it."

But no matter what Samantar's involvement may have been, a hard truth looms: Legally, it may not matter.

"We have a policy in this country, it's actually established in law, that our courts are not available to prosecute or hold liable foreign officials for acts done in their official capacity," Spirer said.

In 2007 a district judge ruled that Samantar had immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act and dismissed CJA's lawsuit. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overturned that decision, ruling that the law only applies to foreign states, not individuals.

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