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Dolly M.E. Filartiga and Joel Filartiga v. Americo Norberto Peña-Irala

Court Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, United States
Case number No. 191, Docket 79-6090, 630 F.2d 876; 1980 U.S. App. LEXIS 16111
Decision title Opinion
Decision date 30 June 1980
  • Dolly M.E. Filartiga
  • Joel Filartiga
  • Americo Norberto Peña-Irala
Categories Torture
Keywords Alien Tort Claims Act, jurisdiction (universal), torture
Other countries involved
  • Paraguay
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The Filártiga family, Dolly and Dr. Joel Filártiga, Paraguay nationals, claim that on 29 March 1976, Dr. Filártiga’s seventeen-year-old son Joelito Filártiga was kidnapped and tortured to death by the Inspector General of Police in Asuncion at that time, Américo Norberto Peña-Irala (Peña). They claim that Joelito was maltreated because his father was a longstanding opponent of the government of Paraguayan President Alfredo Stroessner who ruled over the country since 1954.

In 1978, Joelito’s sister Dolly Filártiga and (separately) Américo Peña came to the United States. Dolly applied for political asylum, while Peña stayed under a visitor's visa. Dolly learned of Peña's presence in the United States and reported it to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, who arrested and ordered the deportation of Peña for staying well past the expiration of his visa.

Immediately after, on 6 April 1979, the Filártiga family filed a complaint before US courts alleging that Peña had wrongfully caused Joelito's death by torture and seeking compensatory and punitive damages of $ 10,000,000. In support of federal jurisdiction, the Filártiga family relied on the Alien Tort Claims Act, a federal statute of 1789. They also sought to enjoin Peña’s deportation to ensure his availability for testimony at trial. The District Court for the Eastern District of New York dismissed the case on the grounds that subject matter jurisdiction was absent and for forum non conveniens, but on appeal the Filártiga family succeeded: the Court of Appeal, Second Circuit, ruled that even though the Filártiga family did not consist of US nationals and that the crime was committed outside the US, the family was allowed to bring a claim before US courts. It held that torture was a violation of the laws of nations and that federal jurisdiction was provided.

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Procedural history

On 6 April 1979, the Filártiga family, Dolly and Dr. Joel Filártiga, brought a complaint in the Eastern District of New York against Peña for wrongfully causing the death of Dr. Filartiga's seventeen-year old son, Joelito. Also compensatory and punitive damages of 10 million dollar were sought. The suit was filed under a previously little-used 1789 federal statute, the Alien Tort Claims Act, which gives foreign nationals the right to sue for wrongful actions that violate international law.

On 15 May 1979, the District Court dismissed the action for want of subject matter jurisdiction.

The Filártiga family appealed. On 16 October 1979, the case was heard by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

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Related developments

On 10 January 1984, the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York entered judgment against Peña and in favour of the father for $5,210,364 and in favour of the sister for $5,175,000.

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Legally relevant facts

The crimes were committed outside the US, namely in Paraguay. Neither the plaintiffs nor the defendant were nationals of the US.

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Core legal questions

  • Does an act of torture violate the law of nations? (p. 2)
  • Can a foreign national bring a case before federal courts for civil redress, for acts, which occurred abroad? (p. 6)

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Specific legal rules and provisions

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Court's holding and analysis

The Court of Appeal reversed the District Court’s decision, and declared that foreign nationals who are victims of international human rights violations may sue their misfeasors in federal court for civil redress, even for acts, which occurred abroad, so long as the court has personal jurisdiction over the defendant. In particular, the Court held that ‘whenever an alleged torturer is found and served with process by an alien within our borders, § 1350 provides federal jurisdiction’ (p. 2).

The Court of Appeal further ruled that freedom from torture is guaranteed under customary international law. The prohibition as such ‘is clear and unambiguous, and admits of no distinction between treatment of aliens and citizens’ (p. 5). In addition, the Court of Appeal held that ‘an act of torture committed by a state official against one held in detention violates established norms of the international law of human rights, and hence the law of nations’ (p. 3).

In respect of perpetrators of torture in general, the Court famously held that ‘for purposes of civil liability, the torturer has become like the pirate and slave trader before him hostis humani generis, an enemy of all mankind’ (p. 9).

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Further analysis

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Instruments cited

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Related cases

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Additional materials

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