WASHINGTON—Today the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that may determine whether victims of horrible violations of human rights abuses will continue to be able to bring claims in American courts against their tormentors.
By coincidence, the arguments will come exactly 28 years to the day since my 17-year-old brother, Joelito, was tortured and killed by local police in Asuncion, Paraguay. At 3 that morning I was awakened by policemen, who took me to a neighbor's house and showed me my brother's beaten body. The chief inspector, Americo Pena-Irala, told me to take the body home and never talk about what had happened. I remember telling him, ''Tonight you have power over me, but tomorrow I will tell the world.''
Little did I know that one day, I would not only be able to tell the world of Mr. Pena-Irala's brutality, but also that I would do so in an American court.
My brother's ''crime'' was that my father was a vocal opponent of Paraguay's dictator, Alfredo Stroessner. After Joelito's killing was publicized in the news media, my mother and I were arrested on false charges. My family tried to bring a case against Mr. Pena-Irala in Paraguay, but our lawyer was arrested, threatened and shackled to a wall and had his law license taken away.
After Joelito's murder, Mr. Pena-Irala left Paraguay for New York. I came here as well, determined to at least confront him. But lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights told me about the Alien Tort Claims Act. Passed in 1789 by the first Congress, the act allows noncitizens to bring civil suits in federal court for crimes ''committed in violation of the law of nations.'' In 1979 we brought a case based on the torture of my brother and in 1980 a federal appeals court recognized our right to sue. In 1984 a trial judge found Mr. Pena-Irala liable.
Although Mr. Pena-Irala was sent back to Paraguay and none of the $10 million judgment has yet been paid, our case established a remarkable precedent: from Ethiopia's Red Terror to Argentina's Dirty War to the Philippines' dictatorship under Ferdinand Marcos, in 19 instances survivors or victims' relatives have used this law to obtain a measure of justice.
For my family, the court decision put us at risk but also gave protection -- the Paraguayan government threatened us but wouldn't risk retaliating once we had the American legal system on our side. In Paraguay, the case remains a symbol of the injustice of the Stroessner dictatorship, and my brother is considered a martyr for human rights.
However, this remarkable legacy is now in jeopardy. Reversing almost three decades of executive-branch policy, the Bush administration is asking the Supreme Court to eviscerate the Alien Tort Claims Act. In a case involving the kidnapping of a Mexican doctor suspected of involvement in the killing of an American drug enforcement official, the Justice Department (supported by amicus briefs from business lobbies) is claiming that the rulings in my case and in 18 others since were based on a mistaken interpretation of the law. Today the court will hear its arguments for a new reading of the 215-year-old statute that would make it virtually impossible for human rights victims to sue.
If the court accepts these arguments, then torturers like Americo Pena-Irala would be able to travel freely in the United States. Deposed dictators like Ferdinand Marcos and brutal generals like Carlos Vides Casanova, who presided over human rights abuses in El Salvador in the 1980's, could come here and enjoy safe haven.
I came to this country in 1978 hoping simply to look a killer in the eye. With the help of American law, I got so much more. Eventually I received political asylum, then became a citizen. I am proud to live in a country where human rights are respected, where there is a way to bring to justice people who have committed horrible atrocities. Now it is up to the Supreme Court to ensure that truth will continue to triumph over terror.