The Washington Post
Friday, April 2, 2004; Page A22

For a Sister, Court Fight Stirs Memories of Paraguay

By Nora Boustany

"Just get rid of the body."

Dolly Filartiga has never forgotten the words barked at her early one morning 28 years ago. She was awakened at 3 a.m. and summoned to a neighbor's house, where she found the mutilated body of her brother, Joelito, 17.

The command to take the corpse away came from one of Joelito's torturers, Americo Norberto Peña-Irala, then inspector general of police in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay.

"I didn't know what to do," said Filartiga, who was 20 at the time. "I tried to wake him up, he was so heavy."

Joelito had been kidnapped the night before, hauled off to a police station and tortured. He was then taken to Peña-Irala's house, next door to the Filartiga home.

Joelito was tortured to get him to sign a confession about his father, a civic-minded doctor who had opposed the brutal dictatorship of President Alfredo Stroessner and had advised poor farmers against selling their handpicked cotton too cheaply, while city fat cats profited from their labor.

"What did you do to my brother?" she demanded.

"This is what you deserve and what you have been asking for," she said Peña-Irala responded, ordering her never to breathe a word about what had happened.

"Today I will shut up. You have power over me now," Filartiga said, repeating the testimony she has given repeatedly over the years. "Tomorrow, everybody will know the truth."

The Filartigas tried to bring a criminal action against Peña-Irala in Paraguay. But he had fled to the United States on a tourist visa with the pretext of wanting to visit Disneyland. The lawyer who took the Filartiga case was arrested and later disbarred.

Ultimately, the family was able to sue Peña-Irala in the United States, using the Alien Tort Claims Act. Filartiga, in town this week to hear arguments in the Supreme Court about the act, described the curious circumstances that led her to the United States on the trail of her brother's killer and her pursuit of justice in an American court.

Shortly after Joelito was killed, a letter from Peña-Irala to his family was accidentally delivered to the Filartiga home. The Filartigas steamed it open, read it and learned that Peña-Irala was living in New York. The letter was resealed and delivered next door.

Around the same time, Filartiga, unable to handle the sight of blood without thinking about her brother, dropped out of school during her first year as a pre-med student. Her father, Joel, who was also an artist, was invited to the United States to exhibit his work but told his daughter that she could not accompany him unless she returned to school.

"That was the last thing I wanted to do," Filartiga recalled. She talked him into letting her come on a tour of three cities and stayed behind in New York. To survive, she cleaned houses during the day and offices at night.

She eventually tracked down Peña-Irala, who was selling hot dogs and empanadas in Brooklyn. She called the Immigration and Naturalization Service, seeking his apprehension. He was followed, photographed and detained.

In 1979, her family, with the help of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights and Rhonda Copelon, a law professor at the City University of New York, sued Peña-Irala under the Alien Tort Claims Act. The act, enacted in 1789, allows noncitizens to bring civil lawsuits for human rights abuses committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.

Ultimately the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York recognized the right to sue, and in 1984, Filartiga won a $10 million judgment against Pena-Irala, which she has yet to collect. Peña-Irala, who was deported, has denied that he killed Joelito.

The court opinion became the basis for nearly 20 other successful cases in behalf of people from El Salvador, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua, Ethiopia and the Philippines and involving torture, summary executions, disappearances, rape and slavery.

The human rights community is worried that if the Supreme Court rules against the act, victims of gross human rights abuses will no longer be able to bring claims in U.S. courts against perpetrators who come here or have substantial contacts or a base of operations here.

But the Bush administration is concerned that the law could compromise the fight against terrorism and the assistance some allies might offer.

Filartiga said: "It cost my family a lot to have my brother die in this way. I am not talking about money. We never really recovered. . . . This has been one of the most important fights in my life. It would be very sad to know we don't have the possibility to fight for human rights here."

© 2004