Foreign Torture Victims Seek Justice in U.S. Courts


His body remembers. Pain rakes his legs. It kicks at his skull. And every day it gnaws the soft flesh between his thighs where more than six years ago, he says, his tormentor pounded with fist, club and booted foot, telling Kemal Mehinovic: “You won’t be needing this anymore.”

Mehinovic landed in Utah the summer of 1995, a man in need of a country. Besides his wife and teenage son and daughter, he brought only a plastic bag containing his refugee papers and two cigarettes.

Once co-owner of a family bakery, restaurant and cafe in a small city in Bosnia, he says, he lost it all in the Bosnian Serb takeover of 1992. According to documents he filed in federal court, he was arrested with other Muslims, sent to a concentration camp, separated from his family for more than two years, abused and starved.


The past came galloping back in January 1998. A Bosnian friend living in Georgia phoned around midnight. “I have some news for you,” the caller said. “That guy who was beating you all the time. He’s here.”

For several nights Mehinovic couldn’t sleep. “I couldn’t believe it at first. . . . How can somebody like that come to the United States?”

Mehinovic, a chain smoker with tired brown eyes and thick workingman’s fingers, speaks little English. Now, three years after arriving in America, he’s taking action the American way: He’s suing.

Mehinovic v. Vuckovic, filed last August in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, seeks unspecified damages for torture, genocide, assault and false arrest. The defendant is a Serbian-born Bosnian named Nikola Vuckovic.

Vuckovic has denied the claims in court documents. “Doesn’t even know the guy,” his attorney, Larry Pankey, said. Besides, Pankey said, he’ll argue that Georgia’s two-year statute of limitations on personal injury cases invalidates the lawsuit.

New Life for Old Law

Mehinovic’s lawsuit, since joined by three more plaintiffs and not yet set for trial, is among the latest in a small but growing body of cases in which people claiming to be victims of torture in other countries seek redress in American courts.

They are giving new life to the Alien Tort Claims Act, enacted by the first Congress in 1789. The law allows foreign residents to sue in U.S. courts those who break “the law of nations or a treaty of the United States"--pirates, for instance. Two hundred years later, the same law is turning some U.S. courtrooms into human rights tribunals of a sort.

In court documents, Vuckovic acknowledges he was a soldier but denies the allegations of wrongdoing. “Everybody who was able-bodied in that country was a soldier,” Vuckovic’s lawyer pointed out. “So what? Did he have a choice in the matter? No.”

Were it not for the lawsuit, Nikola Vuckovic might be left alone digging his own toehold in Clarkston, Ga., a suburban enclave of new immigrants 12 miles outside Atlanta. A Christian, he has a Muslim wife and three children. They came to this country in October 1997, refugees like Mehinovic. He works at an air-compressor plant.

Now much of his income pays a lawyer who charges $150 to $200 an hour. Trouble may loom on another front. His attorney said the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Atlanta has questioned him about the allegations against his client.

Like his accuser, Vuckovic is 42, short and stocky. He seemed eager to give an interview but yielded to his lawyer’s order not to. Anything his client says could be used against him in court, Pankey said.

“I’m so sorry, lady,” Vuckovic said, sitting in the family apartment. “Maybe next time,” he added with an engaging smile.

A Christmas wreath hung on the door. Shoes, left outside in keeping with Muslim custom, cluttered the landing.

Since 1979, more than 20 lawsuits citing the Alien Tort Claims Act have been filed in this country. The potential scope broadened with the 1991 Torture Victim Protection Act, which entitles U.S. citizens to bring these lawsuits as well, and spells out that torture and summary execution are personal injuries for which people can seek damages.

The plaintiff need not live in this country, though most do. And the defendant need only set foot on American soil long enough to be served with a complaint. In some cases, the victim is dead and the lawsuit is filed by relatives.

Juries and courts have awarded plaintiffs millions of dollars, but little has been collected. Most of those sued have left this country, and it’s too expensive to trace their assets abroad.

Marcos Pursued Under Same Law

A sampler of cases that invoked the Alien Tort Claims Act:

* Lawsuits pursued ex-dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his family after they fled the Philippines for Hawaii in 1986. Marcos died three years later, but a federal jury in 1994 held his estate liable for $1.96 billion in damages for nearly 10,000 victims of torture, summary executions and disappearances during his regime. The disbursement of the money remains in dispute.

* Lt. Gen. Prosper Avril, a former Haitian dictator, was living in the country club development of Miami Lakes, Fla., when he was sued in 1991 by six Haitians who accused him of torture and other maltreatment. The plaintiffs won a $41-million default judgment in 1994; Avril had returned to Haiti and refused to come back to Miami for a court-ordered deposition.

* Guatemala’s former defense minister, Hector Gramajo, was sued by an American nun and eight Guatemalan Indians who accused him of murder, torture and forced exile. One summons was delivered to him the day of his 1991 graduation from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Gramajo returned to Guatemala and was running for president in 1995 when a U.S. district judge ruled him liable by default for $47.5 million in damages.

Gramajo said at the time he had no money to fight the lawsuit and denied involvement or knowledge of the crimes attributed to him. “I am a general out of the ordinary who fought for democracy,” he said.

Other defendants have included a former Indonesian general and, in a case still pending, former Bosnian-Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. Also pending are various lawsuits naming multinational corporations as defendants. One is accused of misusing workers in a Burma pipeline project, another of profiting from slave labor in Nazi Germany.

The Alien Tort Claims Act was invoked again in January in a federal lawsuit filed in Los Angeles on behalf of more than 50,000 workers recruited from China, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Thailand. The defendants are more than two dozen corporations--including a slew of popular U.S. clothing retailers--accused of abusive garment factory practices on the Pacific island of Saipan, a tiny U.S. commonwealth.

Like Spain’s current effort to extradite Gen. Augusto Pinochet, charging that the former Chilean dictator ordered murder, kidnapping and torture during his 1973-90 rule, the lawsuits reflect a movement since World War II that aims to hold wrongdoers to account for human rights abuses.

“We’ve got all of these treaties and conventions and speeches,” said Peter Weiss, a corporate lawyer in New York. “The top guys, the real criminals, always seem to get away.”

Weiss unearthed the Alien Tort Claims Act during the Vietnam War, seeking a way to sue U.S. military officials on behalf of victims of the 1968 My Lai massacre. The lawsuit was never filed, but a decade later he found a way to use the old law.

‘Filartiga Principle’ Set Precedent

The American system of justice is unique, said Weiss, who takes cases pro bono for the Center for Constitutional Rights. “There’s no other country where the Filartiga principle applies quite the way it does here.”

The Filartiga principle takes its name from a Paraguayan family that sought the center’s help in 1979 after the torture and death of 17-year-old Joelito Filartiga.

In 1984, his sister, Dolly, and father, Joel, won a $10.4-million judgment against Americo Pena Irala, a former Paraguayan police official.

The family says Joelito was targeted in 1976 because his father actively opposed then-dictator Gen. Alfredo Stroessner.

Three years after that death, Pena Irala was in New York and about to be deported for overstaying his tourist visa. Before he left, the Filartigas sued him in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, N.Y., invoking the Alien Tort Claims Act.

Pena Irala paid not a penny, but Dolly Filartiga, 43, feels hers is more than a paper victory. “We made a big step, for it won’t be that easy for people that torture.” As for her brother, “He didn’t die in vain.”

“God bless America,” she says.

INS May Overlook a Troubled Past

U.S. immigration laws and screening processes don’t always spot people with trouble in their past.

An Ethiopian immigrant named Kelbessa Negewo was a bellhop at an Atlanta hotel in 1989 when he was recognized by a waitress working there.

That encounter led in 1993 to a U.S. district judge’s order that Negewo pay $1.5 million to the waitress and two other women who testified that he tortured them during Ethiopia’s “Red Terror” campaign of 1977-78.

The women said they were stripped, hung upside down from a pole and beaten.

Negewo represented himself at the trial because the court said there were no “exceptional” grounds to appoint a lawyer for him. He denied the charges and claimed he didn’t know the women, while accusing them of belonging to a violent political group. Negewo came to this country under political asylum and pointed out that he himself had been imprisoned after falling out with the regime.

An appeals court upheld the judgment against him. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider it.

In the meantime, he received U.S. citizenship.

The women, represented by a law firm that took their case pro bono, got his wages and bank account garnisheed. He promptly filed for bankruptcy and got the money back. The two sides are now embroiled over whether Negewo can use bankruptcy to avoid paying the damage award.

At the same time, back in Ethiopia, Negewo is on trial in absentia with others accused of murder and torture that took place 20 years ago. Now in his late 40s, Negewo still lives in Atlanta, works at a hotel and lives with his wife in a two-bedroom apartment.

An interview arranged by Negewo’s lawyer fell through when Negewo said he had to leave for work. John Matteson, a critic of the Alien Tort Claims Act who became Negewo’s lawyer after the trial, said: “They’ve got a lot of unsubstantiated allegations from pitiful people with pitiful stories. But my client didn’t have anything to do with it.”

The INS has begun reviewing Negewo’s case for possible denaturalization, an official in Atlanta said.

But while civil lawsuits need only show allegations are more than likely true, revoking citizenship or permanent residency requires clear, unequivocal and convincing evidence, said John Miles, associate general counsel for INS in Washington.

This rarely happens; only about 20 naturalizations are revoked each year, Miles said. Another 5,000 individuals lose their permanent residency and are deported.

Bosnian Says a Friend Was His Torturer

Kemal Mehinovic’s lawsuit says his troubles began in May 1992 when he was roused from a nap by Bosnian-Serb militiamen, beaten and taken to the police station in his hometown of Bosanski Samac.

Early on, the documents say, a familiar face appeared among the uniforms.

Nikola Vuckovic was a friend, Mehinovic said in an interview. Vuckovic’s brother-in-law had worked in Mehinovic’s bakery. When the brother-in-law fell ill with cancer, Mehinovic helped out and later collected money for the funeral. Vuckovic often came to Mehinovic’s place for coffee.

But over his six months in custody, Mehinovic’s lawsuit says, Vuckovic “repeatedly tortured and beat” him. It says Vuckovic struck him “with metal pipes, baseball bats, chair legs, wooden batons, his fists and heavy boots, and at one point forced his legs apart and beat his genitals, stating, ‘You won’t be needing this anymore.’ ”

His lawsuit against Vuckovic is the first for the San Francisco-based Center for Justice & Accountability, a nonprofit law firm started by Amnesty International.

Mehinovic’s lawyer, Shawn Roberts, said he has witnesses: the three men who joined his lawsuit, and several who can testify to Mehinovic’s further accusations in the lawsuit that Vuckovic had a role in persecuting Muslims and Croats.

Mehinovic’s lawsuit says he was moved to a concentration camp and later tried and convicted in a Bosnian-Serb military court on vague charges of killing Bosnian-Serb children. Though sentenced to die, he was freed in a prisoner exchange, the lawsuit says.

Utah, a place he had never heard of, was picked by the refugee aid agency because the climate was like his home region. He found work managing rental apartments and houses. With help from his boss, he says, he now owns his modest blue frame home and rental properties.

Mehinovic said he doesn’t expect to see any money if he wins his lawsuit. Whatever the outcome, he said, he is happy that his story is on record.

Verena Dobnik, a reporter at AP’s New York City bureau, assisted in this report.