By Andrew Cohen
For Christina Hioureas ’07 and Kathy Roberts ’04, representing torture victim Abukar Hassan Ahmed offered a rare chance to achieve both justice and history. “No member of Somalia’s notorious National Security Service (NSS) had ever been held accountable for atrocities committed during that country’s 20-year military dictatorship,” Roberts said. “It was long overdue.”
In November 2012, the Southern District Court of Ohio ruled that Colonel Abdi Aden Magan—former NSS investigations chief—was liable for Ahmed’s torture; cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; and arbitrary detention. A constitutional law professor and human rights advocate, Ahmed says he was targeted by the military dictatorship after ignoring orders to stop defending political dissidents and to refrain from teaching his students about human rights. He gave a harrowing account of his treatment in court May 30; a damages award is expected by the end of July.
Roberts first spoke with Ahmed when he contacted the Center for Justice & Accountability (CJA), where she is legal director. Ahmed had been vainly trying to track down Magan for years. The center’s Internet research showed that Magan—who fled Somalia in 1991 when the brutal regime of dictator Siad Barre collapsed—had found a safe haven in Columbus, Ohio.
In 2010, CJA filed Ahmed v. Magan in Ohio under the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victim Protection Act. Hioureas joined the case when her firm, Latham & Watkins, was enlisted as pro bono counsel. Hioureas was a public international law attorney in the firm’s London office, and with Ahmed also living in London as well as several factual witnesses, she began steering the case with CJA.
“Representing Professor Ahmed alongside the Center for Justice & Accountability has been an honor; promoting justice, human rights, and the rule of law,” said Hioureas, who now works at Chadbourne & Parke in New York. At trial, she gave the opening statement and conducted a direct examination of Ahmed. “Kathy and I have become good friends over the course of the case. We had the Berkeley Law connection and a strong desire to achieve justice for our client.”
Magan was a key figure in the NSS, also known as the “Black SS” or “Gestapo of Somalia” because of barbarous techniques used to gain confessions. He did not present any evidence to dispute allegations that he directed subordinates to carry out human rights abuses under Barre’s regime. Magan failed to appear for his deposition, and is believed to now be living in Kenya.
Ahmed, 67, is currently the Legal Adviser to the President of Somalia. In this role, he is continuing to promote the rule of law and working to draft the Somali Human Rights Bill and Provisional Constitution. He is seeking more than $12 million in damages, alleging that Magan maliciously ordered the torture he endured, leaving him with chronic pain and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Regardless of what the court decides for damages, its ruling sends a message that this kind of egregious behavior will not be tolerated,” Roberts said. “As Professor Ahmed told us: ‘This case will be heard in Somalia and will tell people that no one can torture a Somali citizen. Justice has no national borders, justice is universal, and a human being will be held to account anywhere he is located.’”
Last year, a federal judge in Virginia ordered the former prime minister of Somalia, Mohamed Ali Samantar, to pay $21 million in compensatory and punitive damages to several members of the minority Isaaq clan. The victims said they suffered severe repression—including torture and mass killings—under Barre’s regime. Roberts served as lead trial counsel on the case in her role with CJA.
Calling upon her international law background and “experience having attended a diverse university like UC Berkeley” for both her political science and law degrees, Hiroueas interviewed witnesses from all over the world, including some who spoke little or no English.
“You have to understand different cultural and religious norms, consider the manner in which you ask questions, and approach witnesses—many of whom themselves have endured so much—in a way that allows them to trust you and feel comfortable opening up about the brutality they witnessed,” she said. “It’s crucial to shed light on this dark time in history, and we were very careful and methodical in our approach.”
Having spent time in Somalia, Roberts used her contacts there to secure key witnesses such as Colonel Abdulkarim Shabel—the former head of finances for the NSS. Despite his position, Shabell was arrested multiple times because he came from a minority clan targeted by Barre’s military. Shabel submitted testimony relating to Magan’s command authority and his reputation for savagery.
“I knew how important this case was for the people in Somalia,” Roberts said. “We left no stone unturned and produced 962 pages of documentary evidence. It’s very difficult to get information about high-ranking people from the clandestine services, so the significance of this case is hard to overstate.”
While the case helped shed light on a dark period of Somali history, it also revealed Professor Ahmed’s persistence in promoting human rights and the rule of law. He said the victory is not just for him, but “for all of the silent survivors of torture, dead or alive.”