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Torture Testimony Contributes to Decision in Federal Case in Ohio

For Immediate Release

A medical expert in the Asylum Network of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) provided key testimony contributing to a significant ruling in Ohio last month in which a federal judge held that a former Somali security official was responsible for ordering the arrest and torture of a Somali law professor more than 20 years ago.

US District Court Judge George C. Smith of the Southern District of Ohio ruled that Col. Abdi Aden Magan, former investigations chief of the Somali National Security Service (NSS), is legally liable for the arbitrary detention and cruel treatment, including torture, of Abukar Hassan Ahmed, a former human rights attorney and professor at Somali National University.

“Most people don’t realize that it’s possible to prosecute here in the US even human rights crimes that occurred abroad,” said Christy Fuijo, director of PHR’s Asylum Program. “Establishing jurisdiction can be tricky, but the Torture Victim Protection Act and the Alien Tort Statute make it possible. And when victims present forensic medical evidence demonstrating that they endured torture and ill treatment, judges pay attention.” The Asylum Program provides more than 500 forensic medical evaluations a year for asylum seekers and other victims of abuse, and more than 90% of those claims are successful.

The NSS arrested Ahmed in November 1988 and held him for about three months, during which he was interrogated and tortured. Kept in solitary confinement, deprived of sleep, and served a starvation diet of rancid food, he was also beaten and tortured during interrogation sessions—abuse from which he continues to suffer both physically and psychologically.

Ahmed left Somalia in 1989 and emigrated to the United States, settling in Ohio. He spent two decades searching for Col. Magan before finally locating him in Columbus, Ohio, to which Magan had fled after the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991. Ahmed then filed suit against Magan under the federal Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victim Protection Act. He was represented by the Center for Justice and Accountability and pro bono counsel from Latham & Watkins, LLP.

Dr. Coleen Kivlahan, a longtime member of PHR’s Asylum Network who has conducted some 200 medical evaluations, was asked by counsel to examine Ahmed to validate his allegations of torture.

"So much of our work in human rights is focused on documenting acute injuries and rarely do we get to witness justice being delivered,” said Dr. Kivlahan. “In this case, I was privileged to document old physical injuries, bear witness to the emotional trauma created by torture, and play a small part in assuring that a perpetrator who hurt so many people is held accountable."

Col. Magan provided no evidence or testimony to challenge Ahmed’s motion for summary judgment, which Judge Smith approved. His ruling is the first to hold any former Somali official responsible for torture inflicted during the Siad Barre regime, in which hundreds, and possibly thousands, of alleged dissidents were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and in some cases executed without trial.

"This case was challenging in that the physical wounds were decades old, emotional wounds were both acutely present and chronic, and it involved torture methods that created complex physical sequelae that can easily be attributed to disease conditions,” Dr. Kivlahan said. “Tying these factors into a single cohesive case took the skills of expert attorneys, PHR, and medical and psychological evaluations."

She added: "On a personal level, the survivor in this case is so intelligent and capable, yet his life has been touched by his torture in ways most of us could never comprehend. It is deeply gratifying to see this outcome and gives me hope for bringing justice to survivors wherever their perpetrators may be."

The next step in the trial is an evidentiary hearing to determine monetary damages owed to Ahmed by Magan. During this phase, the forensic medical evidence of suffering and resulting physical and psychological trauma will be critically important in the judge’s decision. Judges typically look to a number of factors when calculating such awards, including medical costs to date, the projected costs to continue healing, lost wages from inability to work, and expenses related to ongoing counseling and other rehabilitative services.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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Kevin Short

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