Published July 20, 2011
ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Aziz Deria has waited seven years to confront the former Somali leader he blames for the deaths of his father, brother and thousands of his countrymen. He could have his chance this week.
Somalia's former prime minister Mohamed Ali Samantar is scheduled to begin a deposition Thursday in a federal lawsuit accusing him of war crimes. The northern Virginia resident pulled out of previously planned questioning by citing ill health, but a judge has ordered him to cooperate this time unless extraordinary circumstances arise.
His accuser is skeptical of his efforts to avoid the deposition.
"This man knows what he has done. He will try to do anything to be away from the court system," said Deria, a 47-year-old businessman in Bellevue, Wash.
In 2004, a human rights group helped Deria and another man sue Samantar under a U.S. law that allows civil action against foreign officials responsible for torture or wrongful killings. They allege Samantar, a one-time top lieutenant to dictator Siad Barre, commited war crimes against northern Somalia's Isaaq clan in retribution for what he perceived as efforts to split Somalia in two.
Deria's father is among those who killed in a crackdown on the clan, the lawsuit alleges. The Barre regime collapsed in 1991, and there hasn't been a strong national government there since.
Samantar was once one of the most important men in Africa, a power broker who used Somalia's strategic position on the Horn of Africa to gain alternating favor from the United States and the Soviet Union. He served from 1980 to 1986 as defense minister, building one of most formidable armies in sub-Saharan Africa. He served as prime minister from 1986 to 1990.
He now lives in a split-level in the Washington suburb of Fairfax, surrounded not by presidents and potentates but by large extended family. He is still well-known among Somali diaspora.
His illnesses aren't contrived, says his lawyer Joseph Peter Drennan, explaining that Samantar is on dialysis and has become weaker in recent weeks. He has filed emergency motions with an appeals court seeking to halt the lawsuit. But a judge has ordered that Samantar submit to three days of depositions this month.
For Deria, who is represented by the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability, the opportunity to question Samantar is the primary reason he has pursued a lawsuit for so many years. The lawsuit was once tossed out by a federal judge who said Samantar had diplomatic immunity, but the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed and reinstated it.
Samantar isn't wealthy, so Deria does not expect to profit financially. Holding him accountable is the real goal.
Yet many Somalis, even those victimized by the Barre regime, don't understand why Deria is pursuing Samantar through the U.S. court system.
"They don't know how to hold people accountable," Deria said, referring to Somalis and others throughout the developing world, where political leaders are typically above the law. "I want my people to learn about accountability."
"For him to pretend he is innocent, and that nobody can touch him, it is insulting to our intelligence," Deria said.
The Somali diaspora has mixed feelings about Samantar and others from the Barre regime, said Ahmed Elmi, chairman of the Somali American Community Association in Silver Spring, Md. Many don't understand the need to dredge up the past when bad conditions in Somalia still need attention, he said. And while most recognize that atrocities occurred under Barre, others also remember years when schools were built and the country flourished.
Elmi said Somali immigrants generally respect surviving elders from the Barre regime.
For his part, Elmi understands and supports victims' desire for justice.
"That's why we have a court," Elmi said. "If he did these things to my family, I would do the same."
The lawsuit is deeply personal to Samantar. In 1988, he was a college student in California when Somalia began to deteriorate. His father, Mohamed Deria Ali, operated a large import-export business and planned to move the family from Hargeisa to the capital of Mogadishu. Before he could, though, the military attacked the town the town where many Issaq clan members lived.
Back in the U.S., Aziz Deria lost contact with his family. He eventually learned that his father and younger brother, Mustafa Deria, were taken from the family home and never seen again.
Still, Deria gives Samantar credit for his role in Somalia's wars against Ethiopia early in his career. He feels sorry for Samantar in some ways and doesn't consider him evil.
"He became ruthless to survive," Deria said. "I don't think he's a bad person at all. It's just the nature of dictators."
Samantar has refused multiple interview requests, but his lawyer said he didn't persecute the Isaaq clan while in power.
"Samantar, above all, is a fervent nationalist who believes all Somalis should live under one flag," Drennan said. "He is proud of his service to his country."
Drennan said the lawsuit is about clan grievances among the Isaaq, many of whom have pursued establishment of an independent state in northern Somalia.
"Certainly, there were human rights abuses under the Barre regime. It was not a democratic regime. But is it worse than al-Shabab?" he asked, referring to the radical Islamic militia that now controls large swaths of the country and is aligned with al-Qaida.
Deria knows that the lawsuit alone won't provide closure. He's also been traveling back to the region surrounding his home city to help provide proper burials for remains from hundreds of mass graves dug during the Barre regime. In the rainy seasons, bones sometimes wash up from the river beds.
"It is so disgusting to see the skeletons come out. Those skeletons could be my father, my brother, my cousins" Deria said. "For me to have any closure, those people need to have a proper burial. ... It bothers me whenever it rains. It really makes my heart sink."