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
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 date.
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 prisoners.
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
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 luxurious retirement.
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
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle