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Abebe-Jira v. Negewo

Court United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit, United States
Case number No. 93-9133
Decision title Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia
Decision date 10 January 1996
  • Hirute Abebe-Jira
  • Edgegayehu Taye
  • Elizabeth Demissie
  • Kelbessa Negewo, a/k/a Kelbessa Negaw, a/k/a Kellbessa
Categories Torture
Keywords Torture; jurisdiction; “the Red Terror”
Other countries involved
  • Ethiopia
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Hirute Abebe-Jira, EdgeGayehu Taye and Elizabeth Demissie were victims of the so-called “Red Terror” campaign in Ethiopia directed by Mengistu Haile Mariam during his dictatorship in the mid-1970s. The three women were questioned, beaten, threatened and ordered to undress during their illegal detention. The women brought a complaint against Kelbessa Negewo who personally supervised and participated in the interrogations and torture of the women. The District Court for the Northern District of Georgia found Kelbessa Negewo guilty and ordered him to pay $500,000 in damages to the three women. Negewo appealed. On 10 January 1996, the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit dismissed the appeal and upheld the District Court’s decision.

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Procedural history

In September 1990, Hirute Abebe-Jira, EdgeGayehu Taye and Elizabeth Demissie brought a complaint against Kelbessa Negewo, a former Ethiopian government official. The three women claimed that Negewo supervised their torture and interrogations that took place during their detention in prisons in Addis Ababa in the late 1970s.

They relied on the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) and claimed Negewo’s responsibility for their torture and other acts of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

On 21 August 1993, the District Court for the Northern District of Georgia found Kelbessa Negewo guilty of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The District Court awarded each plaintiff $200,000 in compensatory damages and $300,000 in punitive damages.

Negewo appealed the decision.

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Related developments

In May 2002, an Ethiopian court tried and convicted Kelbessa Negewo in absentia of multiple murders, and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

In October 2006, Negewo was extradited from the United States to Ethiopia to serve his sentence.

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Legally relevant facts

Kelbessa Negewo was an official in the local government of Addis Ababa. He personally supervised and interrogated the three women during their illegal detention.

The crimes were committed during the so-called “Red Terror” campaign that took place in Ethiopia between 1976 and 1978, and during which thousands of people died.

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Core legal questions

Does the ATCA provide a private cause of action for violations of international law?

Does the political question doctrine bar a tort action?

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Specific legal rules and provisions

Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789 (Title 28 U.S. Code, Chapter 85, Section 1350)

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Court's holding and analysis

Kelbessa Negewo alleged that the District Court did not have subject matter jurisdiction to hear the case because the ATCA neither provides a private right of action, nor incorporates a right of action through reference to a treaty or federal law. Furthermore, Negewo contended that the complaint involved a nonjusticiable political question.

The Court of Appeals dismissed both grounds of appeal and upheld the decision of the District Court.

With respect to the subject matter jurisdiction, the Court of Appeals referred to the Filartiga v. Pena-Irala caseand held that international law should be interpreted ‘as it has evolved and exists at the time of the case’ (p. 5). In addition, the Court held that the ATCA provides ‘both a private cause of action and a federal forum where aliens may seek redress for violations of international law’ (p. 6). The Court further held that in order to trigger the application of the ATCA, a plaintiff only needs to make an allegation that a tort was committed in violation of international law without having to invoke another enabling statute as a prerequisite (p. 8).

With respect to the nonjusticiable political question, the Court of Appeals referred to the Linder v. Portocarrero case and held thatthe political question doctrine does not prevent a tort action (p. 9).

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Further analysis

P. Hoffman, J. Green and S. Coliver, ‘Holding Human Rights Violators Accountable by Using International Law in U.S. Courts: Advocacy Efforts and Complementary Strategies’, Emory International Law Review, 2005, Vol. 19(1), pp. 169-226.

G. A. Aneme, ‘Apology and Trials: the Case of the Red Terror Trials in Ethiopia’, African Human Rights Law Journal, 2006, Vol. 6(1), pp. 64-84.

K. Tronvoll, C. Schaefer and G. A. Aneme, The Ethiopian red terror trials: transitional justice challenged, Woodbridge: Currey 2009.

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Instruments cited

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Related cases

Mengistu Haile Mariam case

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Additional materials

Ethiopian Woman Sues Atlanta Man, Alleges Torture in Homeland’, Associated Press, 14 September 1990.

L. Neergaard, ‘Emigre Sued by Fellow Ethiopian Claiming Police Torture’, Associated Press, 11 October 1990.

R. Smothers, ‘Nightmare of Torture in Ethiopia Is Relived in an Atlanta Court’, The New York Times, 22 May 1993.

R. Smothers, ‘3 Women Win Suit Over Torture By an Ethiopian Official in 1978’, The New York Times, 21 August 1993.

Amnesty International, ‘Documento - Amnistia Internacional Boletin informativo noviembre 1993’, Amnesty International, November 1993.

H. Weinstein, ‘Fight for Human Rights Ranges the World’, Los Angeles Times, 15 November 2002.

A. Rice, ‘The Long Interrogation’, The New York Times, 4 June 2006.

An archive of murders past’, The Economist, 27 September 2007.

B. Malone, ‘Ethiopian woman confronts “Red Terror” ghosts’, Reuters, 8 February 2009.

T. McGhee, ‘Red Terror in Ethiopia killed thousands between 1976 and 1978’, The Denver Post, 7 November 2013.

‘Kelbessa Negewo’, TRIAL.