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Condemned by Law: Assassination of Political Dissidents Abroad

5.3. Civil Remedies in Domestic Courts

Given the legal and logistical difficulties inherent in actually bringing alleged criminals to trial abroad, many families of victims of Iran’s global assassinations campaign have resorted to seeking money damages in European and U.S. domestic courts. An example of a civil remedy available to families of the victims of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s assassination campaign is the Alien Tort Statute (ATS).202 The ATS allows an alien to sue in U.S. federal court for the commission of a tort committed in violation of the law of nations. 203 Under Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, the alleged violation of the law of nations must be specific and well-established enough to compare with the three offenses recognized at the time of the drafting of the ATS in 1789: assaults against diplomats, piracy, and violation of safe passage.204 Extrajudicial killings are recognized as a violation of the law of nations that satisfies this standard.205 Although there is a requirement of state action,206 the perpetrators of Iran’s assassination campaign certainly acted pursuant to orders from Iran’s government officials.207

Until relatively recently, however, victims of state-sponsored acts of violence had little recourse to civil remedies in domestic courts because of the principle of sovereign immunity. Foreign states and their officials were generally immune from civil liability in many domestic courts.208 As a result, foreign states were rarely, if ever, held liable for causing injuries carried out by their agents or proxies, even if these injuries were perpetrated with criminal intent, unless it could be shown that the officials were acting outside the scope of government authority.209 Over the past thirty years or so, however, many states in the international community have begun to place restrictions on the concept of absolute sovereign immunity, and have created exceptions for certain activities for which their courts will exercise personal and subject matter jurisdiction.210

For example, as early as 1976, the United States recognized the inapplicability of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act in circumstances where states engage in state-sponsored assassination of dissidents on foreign soil. In the case of Letelier v. Republic of Chile, a U.S. district court denied Chile’s sovereign immunity argument that U.S. courts lacked jurisdiction, reasoning that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act does not provide a defense from liability where a foreign state has ordered its agents to conduct an assassination or other act of political violence.211 In its holding, the district court assessed damages of approximately $4.9 million against Chile and certain agents and employees of its intelligence services who were found to have directed and carried out the assassination.212

[202]See 28 U.S.C. § 1350 (1789). The Alien Tort Statute is also commonly referred to as the Alien Tort Claims Act.
[203]28 U.S.C. § 1350 (2002).
[204]540 U.S. 692, 724-25 (2004).
[205]See Filartiga, 630 F.2d 876.
[206]See, e.g., Kadic v. Karadzic, 70 F.2d 232 (2d Cir. 1995); RESTATEMENT (THIRD) OF THE FOREIGN RELATIONS LAW OF
THE UNITED STATES § 702, cmt. b (1987).

[207]See NO SAFE HAVEN, supra note 25, at 3.
[208]See supra notes 178, 199 and accompanying text.
[209]Doe v. Qi, 349 F. Supp. 2d 1258, 1280-84 (2004). Whether the official who allegedly committed the violation of the law of nations was acting within his or her government authority is determined by examining the domestic law under which he or she was operating at the time of the alleged violation. Sovereign immunity is not waived simply because gross violations of human rights took place. Belhas v. Ya’alon, 515 F.3d 1279 (2008).
[210]See, e.g., Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which restricts immunity in cases where victims are seeking money damages “for personal injury or death . . . caused by the tortious act” of a foreign state or its agents. 28 U.S.C. § 1605(a)(5); (7). Additionally, the United States has carved out a major exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act with the passage of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), 28 U.S.C. §1605(a)(7), which allows nationals to sue foreign states if the state has been designated as a state sponsor of terrorism and if the plaintiff's injury has been caused by the state's support of a terrorist organization. Because some courts have held that the AEDPA does not create a cause of action against foreign states, plaintiffs have often relied on the AEDPA and other civil statutes (i.e. Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA), 106 Stat. 73 (1992)).
[211]See generally Letelier, 488 F.Supp. 655.
[212]Letelier, 488 F. Supp. at 670-73.

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Political Killings, Assassinations, Political Freedom