McLEAN, Va. — A US judge on Tuesday awarded $21 million to seven people who sued a former prime minister of Somalia now living in Virginia, claiming he tortured and killed his own people more than two decades ago.
The judgment against Mohamed Ali Samantar, 76, of Fairfax comes at the end of an eight-year legal battle that went to the Supreme Court.
Seven Somali natives filed the lawsuit in 2004 in federal court in Alexandria against Samantar, who served as vice president, defense minister, and prime minister throughout the 1980s under dictator Siad Barre, until the months before the regime collapsed in 1991.
The suit said Samantar personally ordered the killings and torture of members of the minority Isaaq clan.
Samantar denied the accusations and claimed immunity from the lawsuit. On the day the trial was to begin, he entered a default judgment. While he accepted legal liability for the killings, he denied wrongdoing.
One of the plaintiffs, Aziz Deria of Bellevue, Wash., said the ruling vindicates efforts to hold Samantar accountable.
‘‘The case was never about money,’’ said Deria, who has little expectation of recovering his share of the judgment against Samantar, who is bankrupt. ‘‘This case was about having an opportunity to be in court with Samantar and prove he was in charge of what was happening.’’
Samantar’s lawyer, Joseph Peter Drennan, said he will appeal. In fact, the case is already on appeal. The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit is considering whether Samantar was properly denied immunity.
The case has had a tortuous path through the courts. At first, US District Judge Leonie Brinkema dismissed the case, ruling that Samantar enjoyed legal immunity as a former foreign official. But the Supreme Court rejected that argument. Later, the State Department argued in a legal filing that Samantar could not claim immunity because Somalia had no central government that could claim immunity on his behalf.
Brinkema then allowed the case to go to trial. After Samantar defaulted at the outset of the trial in February, the trial proceeded without him.
Several plaintiffs — some who still live in Somalia — told chilling stories of narrowly escaping execution, suffering beatings, and spending years in solitary confinement in jail. Deria sued on behalf of his brother and father, who were killed.