Foreign Abduction Case Goes to Court

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court today for the first time will take up one of the nation’s oldest laws to decide the emerging question of whether victims of abuse abroad can sue their abusers in American courts.

The case to be heard began 14 years ago when a Mexican doctor, Humberto Alvarez Machain, was abducted in Mexico by Mexican agents dispatched by U.S. authorities and brought back to Los Angeles to stand trial for his alleged role in the murder of Enrique Camarena, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent.

Alvarez Machain was acquitted of the charges against him, and after returning home he sued the United States and one of the Mexicans who kidnapped him, Jose Sosa.

Now, the case of the Mexican doctor versus the Mexican bounty hunter has taken on enormous importance for American corporations, the Bush administration and human rights activists.


Business lawyers and the Bush administration seek to halt the trend of bringing foreign disputes into American courts, arguing that U.S. judges have no authority to referee matters of international law.

They accuse liberal judges in California and New York of having “launched a misguided legal revolution” by allowing foreigners to “target private companies with deep pockets [and] almost invariably raise highly charged allegations of human rights abuses ... and involve enormous potential damages,” says the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Foreign Trade Council.

As examples, they cited lawsuits by workers in Burma (now Myanmar) against the energy company Unocal Corp., a lawsuit by an Indonesian tribal chief against U.S. mining companies for “cultural genocide,” and a lawsuit against Exxon Mobil for its role in alleged human rights abuses by the Indonesian military.

The Bush administration says the State Department is upset by these lawsuits because of their effect on diplomatic relations. For example, the president of South Africa has complained about a lawsuit seeking damages for victims of the past apartheid regime.


U.S. Solicitor Gen. Theodore B. Olson says these international claims should be tossed out of federal courts.

There is no law “that permits aliens to come to United States courts and recover money damages for violations of international law anywhere around the globe,” he said.

But human rights activists say the law has been in existence since the U.S. was founded.

The Judiciary Act of 1789 says federal courts “shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”


That law -- now known as the Alien Tort Claims Act -- was largely ignored for most of American history. Beginning in the 1980s, however, judges in New York and California allowed lawsuits to go forward based on claims of human rights abuses.

For example, relatives of people who were tortured or killed in the Philippines under the regime of Ferdinand Marcos filed lawsuits in the United States and won a large amount for damages. In upholding the jury’s verdict, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said torture or murder amounts to “a violation of the law of nations.”

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit upheld a $25,000 judgment against the bounty hunter Sosa, a former Mexican policeman, for his role in kidnapping Alvarez, the Mexican doctor. By coincidence, the ruling was handed down onSept. 11, 2001, the day of the terrorist attacks in New York and at the Pentagon.

Last year, the 9th Circuit affirmed the earlier decision on a 6-5 vote, saying the “struggle against global terrorism” had not changed its view that “arbitrary arrests” by rogue officials violate the “law of nations.” Separately, the appeals court said the Mexican doctor could sue the United States for its role in his kidnapping.


The Supreme Court voted to take up challenges to both rulings.

Olson, the Bush administration’s lawyer, has urged the court to overturn the ruling that allows lawsuits against the United States for foreign abductions. If upheld, Olson said, it could bar U.S. agents from seizing Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda leader believed responsible for the terrorist attacks.

However, most of the focus has turned to the part of the case that will determine whether abuses of international law can be decided in American courts. Until now, the Supreme Court has not weighed in on whether the 18th-century law clears the way for resolving 21st-century disputes on international law in American courts.

Human rights advocates say the U.S. courts should be “a beacon to the world” and offer the promise that the rule of law will be upheld.


“What is at stake here is the right of survivors of human rights abuses to seek redress for their grievances, including torture, forced labor and sexual slavery,” said Paul Hoffman, former director of the ACLU of Southern California, who is representing Alvarez Machain in his lawsuit against the Mexican bounty hunter. “These cases send a message around the world that human rights abusers -- including the U.S. government -- are not above the law.”

The court today will hear arguments in both cases, Sosa vs. Alvarez Machain and United States vs. Alvarez Machain. A ruling is expected by late June.