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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A former Somali prime minister is not protected by sovereign immunity from a lawsuit in the United States for alleged torture and human rights abuses, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday.
In a unanimous decision, the high court handed a defeat to Mohamed Ali Samantar, who served as Somalia's defense minister in the 1980s and then as prime minister from 1987 to 1990.
Justice John Paul Stevens said in the ruling that a U.S. law, the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, protected foreign states and their agencies, but not an official acting on behalf of the state and did not provide Samantar with immunity.
The case had been followed closely for its foreign policy implications. Granting immunity could allow foreign torturers in this country to escape responsibility, human rights groups said.
The lawsuit, seeking financial damages from Samantar, was filed by a small group of Somalis who said they suffered torture or other abuses in their homeland by soldiers or other government officials under Samantar's general command.
The five plaintiffs do not claim that Samantar personally committed the atrocities or that he was directly involved.
But they said the Somali intelligence agencies and the military police under his command engaged in the killings, rapes and torture, including the use of electric shocks, of civilians.
Samantar has lived in Virginia since 1997 while some of the plaintiffs are naturalized U.S. citizens. They brought the lawsuit in 2004 under a U.S. law called the Torture Victim Protection Act.
A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, but a U.S. appeals court reinstated it, ruling the 1976 sovereign immunity law does not apply to individuals. That decision prompted Samantar to appeal to the Supreme Court.
Stevens upheld the appeals court's ruling. He emphasized that the Supreme Court's decision was narrow, limited only to the reach of the 1976 law and he sent the case back to the judge for more proceedings.
Stevens said whether Samantar may be entitled to immunity under the common law, which is based on judicial precedent rather than legislation, and whether Samantar may have other valid defenses to the charges against him are matters to be decided by the judge.
Somalia has been without central rule since warlords toppled former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. A cycle of civil conflicts has ensued. In the latest chapter of Somalia's bloody recent history, al Qaeda-linked Islamists have been waging an insurgency against a U.N.-backed interim government.
The Supreme Court case is Samantar v. Yousuf, No. 08-1555.
Editing by Vicki Allen