SAN FRANCISCO (Feb. 19) -- When Mohamed Ali Samantar, former prime minister of Somalia, arrived in the United States in 1997, he quietly took up residence in Virginia, far from the violence and chaos of his homeland.

Now he has become the focal point of a Supreme Court case that will decide whether he can be held accountable in a U.S. civil court for human rights abuses allegedly carried out by military forces under his control in Somalia.

On March 3, the high court will hear arguments in a civil lawsuit brought by five Somalis, including two who are now U.S. citizens. They charge they or their family members were imprisoned without trial, raped, tortured or murdered by government forces headed by Samantar, who also served as defense minister.

The Somalis are represented by the Center for Justice and Accountability, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that uses civil suits to pursue ex-officials from foreign countries accused of atrocities and human rights violations.

Over the last decade, the little-known center has sued former government officials and high-ranking military officers from nearly a dozen countries, including Bosnia, Chile, Haiti and El Salvador. The center has won every suit that has gone to trial.

But the Samantar case will test the ability of victims to file civil suits to seek compensation from their alleged torturers. Samantar's lawyers argue that he should have immunity from lawsuits because the actions he took were in his capacity as a government official.

The former official in the regime of Somalia's late dictator Mohammed Siad Barre has an unusual collection of supporters in court. The government of Saudi Arabia, various pro-Israel groups and three former U.S. attorneys general are among those who expressed concern that a ruling against Samantar could expose officials from their countries to similar lawsuits.

If Samantar prevails at the Supreme Court, it would be "a significant setback for the last two decades of progress in human rights enforcement," said Vienna Colucci, Amnesty International USA's managing director.

About 500,000 victims of torture and human rights violations live in the United States, many of them granted political asylum, said Pamela Merchant, executive director of the Center for Justice and Accountability. Amnesty International estimates that 1,000 people who committed human rights abuses also live here, sometimes in the same communities as their victims.

The San Francisco center filed the lawsuit against Samantar in 2004. He served as prime minister and defense minister of Somalia during the 1980s. The military regime was notorious as one of the most brutal in Africa.

"The whole point of the law is to prevent people like Samantar, who use their power to order torture, rape and killings, from seeking a safe haven in the United States," Merchant argued. "The bottom line is that this man is not above the law."

Samantar fled Somalia when the regime collapsed in 1991. After he arrived in the U.S. he settled in Fairfax, Va. He denies the charges against him but declined through one of his attorneys to be interviewed.

His lawyers have fought for years to keep the case from going to trial. They argue that he was acting in his official capacity when the alleged crimes occurred and that he is protected from suits by a federal law that grants immunity to foreign states.

"Mr. Samantar vigorously denies the particular allegations in the suit, none of which have ever been determined to be true by any court of law," said the attorney, Shay Dvoretzky.

Center Founded in 1998

The Center for Justice and Accountability was founded by psychotherapist Gerald Gray, who began treating victims of torture in San Francisco in 1985 and soon made it his sole practice.

Gray recounts that in the mid-1990s, he received an urgent call from San Francisco General Hospital seeking help for a newly arrived Bosnian War refugee. When he got to the hospital, the refugee was distraught because he had found his torturer living in San Francisco.

Gray feared the man might kill his tormentor, but instead the traumatized refugee fled to the East Coast. His torturer was never held accountable. "I can't say why he decided not to hunt this guy," Gray said. "Maybe fear of the police, or maybe he couldn't bring himself to kill someone."

The incident inspired Gray to find a way to help victims overcome their trauma by bringing their abusers to justice. With Amnesty International's assistance, he established the Center for Justice and Accountability in 1998.

"The law gives us a chance to do something in a civilized way," said Gray, who serves on the center's board and has founded other groups to aid torture victims. "If we didn't have the law, or if it didn't work, we would be stuck back in that primitive place of flight or fight."

The center, which has a staff of 10, has filed suits on behalf of human rights victims from every continent but Australia and Antarctica. It recruits law firms around the country to work on cases pro bono.

"They've been amazingly effective, especially given their small size and limited resources," said Colucci, the Amnesty International managing director.

William Aceves, an associate dean at the California Western School of Law in San Diego, said the lawsuits give victims a forum in which they can confront their abusers.

"It's never about money," said Aceves, who serves on the center's board. "It's about an opportunity to present a case before a judge and jury, to be able to point a finger at the perpetrator and say, 'What you did was wrong.' "

Immigrants Brought Case Against Samantar

The Samantar case originated in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2002 when three immigrants from Somalia -- brothers Bashe and Omar Yousuf and their cousin, Amina Jireh -- learned by chance that the former Somali leader was living freely in the United States.

"I was really mad," recalled Omar Yousuf, an engineer with the California Department of Transportation. "The person who destroyed the country and killed thousands and thousands of people was in the United States, and we couldn't do anything about it."

Jireh said her nephew, a young doctor, was among those arrested and killed by government forces. His body was dumped in the street in broad daylight. "The regime that was ruled by Samantar killed my nephew and now Samantar is sitting in Virginia having coffee," she said. "We allow him to be here and have a safe haven."

The three met with lawyers from the center and decided to pursue Samantar in court. Bashe Yousuf became the lead plaintiff.

He had been a successful businessman but was arrested in 1981after he led an effort to clean up a hospital and obtain medical supplies from foreign charities. The government falsely accused him and his colleagues of planning a rebellion and conspiring with foreign agents.

He said he was waterboarded, tied up, beaten, shocked and held in solitary confinement for six years. He later received political asylum in the United States and became a citizen. He now lives near Atlanta.

The other plaintiffs are a man who survived execution by firing squad and hid under dead bodies until he could escape; a young woman who was arrested, repeatedly raped and held for years in solitary confinement; a man whose two brothers were arrested and executed; and a man whose father and brother were killed when the military attacked civilians.

At the time, Somalia was ruled by Siad Barre, who seized power in a 1969 military coup. Samantar served as his defense minister and first vice president from 1980 to 1986 and then as prime minister until 1990.

The regime used summary execution, rape, torture and imprisonment without trial to control the population, particularly in Somaliland, a secessionist region in the northwestern part of the country. After the regime collapsed in 1991, the country descended into chaos. Today, Somalia is a base for al-Qaida and pirates who attack commercial vessels.

"This case will set a precedent for a lot of countries that are ruled at gunpoint," said Jireh, who today works as an insurance sales representative in the Bay Area. "He's a war criminal who is living like you and me. That shouldn't be OK."

In 2007, a district judge ruled that Samantar had immunity and dismissed the suit. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision, ruling that the law applies to foreign states, not individuals. Samantar then appealed to the high court.

"The issue before the Supreme Court is whether federal law bars U.S. courts from deciding the internal disputes of other countries," said Dvoretzky, his attorney.

Dvoretzky notes that the current transitional government of Somalia has vouched for Samantar, saying that any actions taken by the former defense minister and prime minister would have been in his official capacity.

But Rutgers University law professor Beth Stephens, who supports the suit against Samantar, points out that the Somali officials who take Samantar's side were his cronies in the old regime.

"Samantar is claiming that he is immune based on statements from people who were part of the abusive government along with him," said Stephens, who serves on the center's board.

"That really turns the concept of human rights protection on its head."