The United States Court of Appeals in Atlanta yesterday reversed a 2002 verdict which awarded $54.6 million in damages to three victims of torture during the civil war in El Salvador. In July 2002, a federal jury in Miami found that Gens. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova and Jose Guillermo Garcia ignored massacres and other acts of brutality against civilians during the war. The two now live in the United States. This AP story provides some background on the trial.
The decision voided the judgment based on grounds of the 10 year statute of limitations for the Torture Victims Protection Act. Because the lawsuit was brought in 2000, more than 10 years after the torture and after the generals had moved to the United States, the appellate court found that the claim was too late.
The Court was clearly concerned that a different ruling would open the floodgates to a variety of claims from earlier wars. The Court stated:
We conclude by noting the dangerous precedent that this case could set if those arguments were accepted. From a United States perspective, there are many countries that oppress their citizens today, and many countries that have oppressed their citizens in decades and centuries past. A lenient approach toward equitable tolling would mean that United States courts would hear claims dating back decades, if not centuries. In enacting a statute of limitations for the TVPA, Congress surely did not intend to permit such trial-by-excavation, at least not absent extraordinary circumstances. Courts would wind up with cases that are based not on witnesses with personal knowledge, but instead on the generalized testimony of human-rights workers, diplomats, and assorted experts. Much of the evidence would pertain not to the particular incidents at issue, but to the illegitimacy of an overall regime.
Arce v. Garcia, case no. 02-14427, at 22 (11th Cir. Feb. 28, 2005).
On a somewhat related note, the ACLU and Human Rights First filed suit today against US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seeking to hold him liable for torture and human rights violations in detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan.