By Richard Luscombe
Human rights abuses and atrocities committed in Somalia during the brutal 21-year reign of the dictator Siad Barre will come under scrutiny in a Virginia courtroom this week as a villager finally confronts the military commander he accuses of attempting to kill him.
Farhan Warfaa last saw the defendant, Yusuf Abdi Ali, in March 1988 when he says Ali – known to terrorized members of the northwestern Somalia Isaaq clan as “Colonel Tukeh” (the crow) – pulled out a handgun and shot him five times at point-blank range following a torture session.
Ali was the commander of the Somali army’s notorious fifth brigade responsible for “gross human rights abuses” in the separatist province of Somaliland during the Barre regime of the 1970s and 1980s, according to the complaint brought by the California-based Center for Justice and Accountability.
Warfaa, a teenager at the time of his abduction and now a respected village elder, has travelled from Somalia for the scheduled five-day hearing in the US district court for the eastern district of Virginia, at which he is seeking unspecified damages for torture and attempted extra-judicial killing.
Just reaching a federal courtroom also marks a victory for the CJA, which first filed the complaint on Warfaa’s behalf in 2004 and which had to overcome some significant legal hurdles that at times threatened to derail the entire case.
In 2016 a Virginia appeals court stripped elements from the lawsuit that prevented Ali – who was discovered by a CNN crew in 2016 working as a security guard at Washington DC’s Dulles airport – from facing wider allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
“He is hoping to achieve some measure of accountability for the abuses that he alleges he and others have suffered,” Carmen Cheung, legal director of the CJA, told the Guardian.
“Even though these crimes took place a long time ago, even though a Virginia courtroom seems very far away from where these acts took place, it is in some ways the only forum.
“The case is an important one not just for those people from Somaliland but also for us as Americans. What gives me hope is that this case is going forward in an American federal district court willing to allow a US jury to listen to these claims and make an adjudication.”
In what is sure to be emotional testimony, Warfaa will tell the jury that he was abducted by Ali’s soldiers late in 1987 as part of a crackdown on the Somali National Movement (SNM), a militia group trying to defend the Isaaq clan against a fifth brigade push into Somaliland.
Warfaa claims he was detained after an army water tanker was stolen, and interrogated over several months. Following another session in which Ali and his henchman stripped and beat him, he says, Ali lost his temper and shot him, ordering the body to be removed and buried.
But Warfaa survived and was smuggled out to family members by Ali’s soldiers in return for a bribe, and recovered to tell his story to human rights workers looking into the violence and mass atrocities that took place in Somalia before Barre was toppled in 1991.
Ali, who fled the country when the regime fell, first went to Canada and was deported to the US when his past came to light there, becoming a legal US resident in Virginia and living there freely for more than two decades with his American citizen wife.
In a short call with the Guardian last week, Ali’s attorney Joseph Peter Drennan would not discuss details but said his client “denies every one of the allegations”.
The case against Ali is the third filed in US federal court by the CJA on behalf of survivors against alleged Barre regime figures. In 2012, Judge Leonie Brinkema, who will hear the Warfaa case, recorded a $21m judgment against the former Somali prime minister General Mohammed Ali Samantar for human rights crimes, although he died in 2016 before any money could be recovered.
Former Somalia national security service chief Abdi Aden Magan, meanwhile, fled to Kenya to escape a $15m judgment against him for the detention and torture of a law professor who was a prominent Barre critic and human rights advocate.
“This is not just a case to me, it’s a part of my life I will never forget and I want to see those responsible realise what they have done,” Warfaa told the Guardian in 2015.