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Jewish groups: Give foreign officials civil suit immunity

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WASHINGTON (JTA) —  Four national Jewish groups are urging the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a lower court decision that strips individual foreign government officials of immunity from civil lawsuits in the United States.

The Zionist Organization of America, the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, Agudath Israel of America and the Orthodox Union signed on to the friend-of-the-court brief written by Washington lawyer Nathan Lewin. They say the ruling, if upheld, would result in a "torrent of lawsuits against Israeli government officials" and likely would keep Israeli officials from traveling to the U.S., so as to avoid being served in civil lawsuits. That, in turn, would violate the First Amendment rights of the Jewish groups.

The case at issue, Samantar v. Yousuf, involves Mohamad Ali Samantar, who was minister of defense and prime minister of Somalia between 1980 and 1990, when opponents of the government allegedly were tortured and killed. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled that Somalian government immunity under federal law does not apply to a present or former government official that is the target of a civil lawsuit filed against him personally.

The brief notes that civil lawsuits have been filed against Israeli officials throughout the world as proof that "Israel’s adversaries are ready to pursue all possible means to hinder measures that duly elected Israeli leaders feel are necessary for Israel’s self-defense." It also cited high court precedents providing immunity to foreign judges and prosecutors to prevent "harassment by unfounded litigation," and said a similar principle should apply in this case.

The case is scheduled to be argued before the Supreme Court on March 3.

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