Filártiga v. Peña-Irala

Filártiga v. Peña-Irala, [ 630 F.2d 876] (2d Cir. 1980) was a landmark case in United States and international law. It set the precedent for U.S. courts to punish non-U.S. citizens for tortious acts committed outside the U.S. that were in violation of the law of nations or any treaties to which the United States is a party. It thus extends the jurisdiction of United States courts to tortious acts committed around the world. The case was decided by a panel of judges from the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit consisting of Judges Feinberg, Kaufman and Kearse.


The Filártiga family contended that on 29 March 1976, their seventeen-year-old son Joelito Filártiga was kidnapped and tortured to death by Américo Norberto Peña Irala. All parties were living in Paraguay at the time, and Peña was the Inspector General of Police in Asunción. Later that same day, police brought Dolly Filártiga (Joelito's sister) to see the body, which evidenced marks of severe torture. The Filártigas claimed that Joelito was tortured in retaliation for the political activities and beliefs of his father, Dr. Joel Filártiga.

Dr. Filártiga brought murder charges against Peña and the police in Paraguay, but the case went nowhere. Subsequently, the Filártigas' attorney was arrested, imprisoned, and threatened with death. He was later allegedly disbarred without just cause.

In 1978, 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 and reported it to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, who arrested and deported Peña for staying well past the expiration of his visa.


When Peña was taken to the Brooklyn Navy Yard pending deportation, Dolly lodged a civil complaint in U.S. courts, brought forth by the Center for Constitutional Rights,cite web
url= | title= Filártiga v. Peña-Irala
publisher=Center for Constitutional Rights
date=March 2007
] for Joelito's wrongful death by torture, asking for damages in the amount of USD $10 million. After an initial district court dismissal citing precedents that limited the function of international law to relations between states, on appeal, the circuit ruled that freedom from torture was guaranteed under customary international law.cite web
url= | title= Filártiga v. Peña-Irala
publisher=Center for Constitutional Rights
date=March 2007
] The appellants argued that Peña's actions had violated wrongful death statutes, the U.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, and other customary international law. Petitioner claimed the U.S. courts had jurisdiction to hear the case under the Alien Tort Statute, which grants district courts original jurisdiction to hear tort claims brought by an alien that have been "committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States." [Alien Tort Statute, UnitedStatesCode|28|1350] This case interpreted that statute to grant jurisdiction over claims for torts committed both within the United States and abroad.


The U.S. courts eventually ruled in favor of the Filártigas, rewarding them roughly $10.4 million. Torture was clearly a violation of international law (aka "the law of nations"), and the U.S. "did" have jurisdiction over the case since the claim was lodged when both parties were inside the United States. Additionally, Peña had sought to dismiss the case based on "forum non conveniens" (saying that Paraguay was a more convenient location for the trial), but did not succeed.


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