A federal appeals court has tossed out a lawsuit that resulted in a $71 million penalty against Zimbabwe's (search) ruling party for allegedly torturing and killing political opponents.

The court said Wednesday that the lawsuit by alleged torture victims against President Robert Mugabe's (search) political party was improperly served on him during a September 2000 visit to a Harlem church and on the street outside the Zimbabwe Mission to the United Nations.

The case involved immunity that Mugabe is entitled to as a diplomat and a head of state.

The lawsuit was filed after militants from Mugabe's party occupied hundreds of white-owned farms in what he has called a justified protest against unfair land ownership by the descendants of British settlers.

Mugabe and his lawyers did not appear in court to fight the allegations before he and several top lieutenants were dismissed as defendants.

His party — the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (search) — was found in default, and a judge in 2002 decided it should pay about $20 million in compensatory damages and $51 million in punitive damages.

U.S. law allows foreigners to sue over international crimes that cannot be taken to court in their own countries.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs did not immediately return a telephone message for comment.

The U.S. government had no comment, said a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan.