After several weeks of speculation Yemen’s former-ish president Ali Abdullah Saleh has been granted a visa to seek medical treatment in New York City. According to press reports, he would be expected to leave as soon as his treatment is completed.

On the one hand, the decision to grant Saleh his visa is a pragmatic way of getting him far  from Yemen as it enters a transitional phase after 22 years of his rule. On the other hand, he is a rather nasty autocrat who used brutal tactics to suppress a popular uprising against him this year.

A few weeks back, I reported that American based human rights group were exploring their options to bring a civil suit against Saleh for human rights abuses.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York based legal non-profit, is weighing its options for bringing a suit against Saleh for human rights abuses he committed as part of the brutal crackdown against Yemeni protesters. “He should be put on trial,” says Ibraham Qatabi, a legal worker with the Center for Constitutional Rights. “We are looking into how to litigate a case against him.”

Yemeni-Americans or Yemenis living in the United States who have been brutalized by the Yemeni regime may try to file civil suit.  If the case goes forward, Saleh has reason to worry. In 1979 the Center for Constitutional Rights successfully pioneered the use of a long forgotten 18th century law intended to deter high-seas piracy to bring suit for human rights abuses committed abroad. The Alien Tort Statute permits foreigners and Americans to bring suit against a foreign national for crimes committed on foreign soil in violation of American treaties or as part of the “Law of Nations.” Since 1980, American courts have interpreted this as permitting civil suits for human rights abuses committed abroad.

One hitch to this plan may be long-standing prohibitions against bringing civil suits against serving heads of state. So, according to Qatabi, the success of a lawsuit may hinge on whether or not an American court finds that an agreement brokered in November by the Gulf Cooperation Council, and signed by Saleh, means that Saleh has formally stepped down as Yemen’s head of state. If so, a lawsuit may be permitted to go forward.

Qatabi and the Center for Constitutional Rights are meeting with several lawyers and legal experts to weigh their options. Given CCR’s track record, I would expect that Saleh would be served not long after he sets foot in the USA. He certainly deserves it.

When he visits the USA he might also want to bring a good lawyer.

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