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Foreign Torture Victims Seek Justice in U.S. Courts

Law: Passed in 1789, the Alien Tort Claims Act can turn American courtrooms into human rights tribunals.


SALT LAKE CITY — 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.

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