In April 2019, the IELR Blog reported on the federal civil case against Colonel Yusuf Abdi Ali, the commander of the Somali National Army under the Said Barre military dictatorship. Somali Farhan Warfaa brought the case against Abdi Ali (known as “Tukeh”) under the Torture Victim Protection Act. Warfaa alleged that Tukeh tortured and interrogated him, then shot him five times at point-blank range, leaving him for dead. Warfaa also argued that Tukeh targeted he – and his village – because of their ethnic status as members of the Issaq clan. Tukeh did not only target Issaq villagers, but even soldiers within his own army, dismissing his troops that belonged to the ethnic group and sending them to the city of Hargeisa, where they faced their likely execution. Some estimates claim that as many as 200,000 people were massacred under the Said Barre dictatorship, but that number is impossible to prove, and may be higher.
On May 21, a federal civil grand jury in Northern Virginia found Tukeh liable for the torture of Warfaa, though not for the attempted extrajudicial killing. As a result, the jury has ordered Tukeh to pay Warfaa $400,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages. Those that testified during the trial included Warfaa and a number of relatives, alongside an additional torture victim and two former soldiers that served under Tukeh.
Kathy Roberts of the Center for Justice and Accountability, who served as Warfaa’s attorney, praised the decision. “We’re thrilled that the jury came back and found that our client had in fact been tortured,” she said. “It’s a good verdict; it stands for the principle that no one above the law. Our client is very happy.”
Tukeh’s attorney, Joseph Peter Drennen, criticized the decision. “Yusuf Abdi Ali was held liable because he was a commander in an army that served under a regime that had a poor human rights record,” he stated. “But aside from the plaintiff’s testimony, there was virtually no evidence that Ali tortured anyone.”
In recent weeks, the scrutiny against Tukeh has extended outside the courtroom. On May 15, CNN reported that Tukeh has worked as an Uber driver for the past year and a half, and previously worked as a Lyft driver as well. CNN reporters went undercover to speak to Tukeh, who they learned had a nearly perfect rating of 4.89 out of 5 with Uber, making him an “Uber Pro Diamond” driver. Tukeh claimed that he had no trouble passing Uber’s background check. Checkr, a separate company, typically performs Uber’s background checks, investigating outlets including national sex offender databases, as well as federal and local court records and databases. Since he has never faced criminal charges in the U.S., he passed such checks without issue. Uber has strengthened their background check policy in the last year, and banned Tukeh from driving with the service.
These events echo those of 2016, when CNN reported that Tukeh – known as an alleged war criminal – was working as a security official at Dulles International Airport, located just outside Washington, DC. He was fired soon after the story broke. The fact that he served as security official, even though he was publically known as an alleged war criminal, is stunning.
However, for Warfaa, and the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) more broadly, this ruling is a great victory. Warfaa has spent the past 15 years seeking to hold Tukeh accountable, arguing in court after court for his case to be heard. Though a previous federal court ruling prevented Warfaa from suing Tukeh under the U.S. Alien Tort Statute, he continued to seek remedy under the Torture Victim Protection Act. On May 21, he finally earned that remedy. To the CJA, meanwhile, this decision represents their third success in recent years. Alongside Warfaa, the CJA has filed suit and won damages for victims from General Mohammad Ali Samantar, a former Somali Prime Minister, as well as Col. Abdi Aden Magan, the former Chief of the Somali National Secret Service.
While Tukeh may appeal the decision, the case – as it currently stands – is complete. Nevertheless, its impact will carry on, as this ruling, alongside CJA’s other victories, showcase how the U.S. is far from a safe haven for alleged war criminals. Laws like the Torture Victim Protection Act serve as effective outlets for victims to find justice when it eludes them elsewhere. This case also shows the important work of non-governmental organizations, such as CJA, that focus on victims of torture and help them prosecute cases.