For the first time since the passage of the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCS) in 1789, a United States District Court in Chicago presided over by Hon. Judge Matthew F. Kennelly will, on December 10, 2007 hold a jury trial to try Nigeria’s former dictator, Gen. A.A. Abubakar in a human rights violation case brought against him by the daughter of Chief M.K.O Abiola, the acclaimed winner of the 1993 presidential election in Nigeria , Hafsat Abiola-Costelo, elder statesman, Chief Anthony Enahoro and human rights activist and author, Dr. Arthur Nwankwo.
An organic part of the Judiciary Act of 1789, the Alien Tort Claims Statute, , (ATS) is a federal law of the United States that states, in relevant part: "The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States." This statute has become significant as a means of allowing foreign government officials, military dictators, and multi-national corporate leaders to be held responsible in a U.S court of law for torture and other human rights abuses committed in their foreign country.
However, since its passage, no Court in the United States has ever held a public jury trial to try a former dictator under the Act. Last year, the case also produced the first in-court evidentiary hearing ever held by a U.S Court to determine whether there were local remedies for the plaintiffs in Nigeria. In the past, such decisions were reached by Courts after reviewing documents and affidavit evidence of experts submitted by parties. However, Judge Kennelly held an open Court hearing in May last year in which Mr. Femi Falana, president of the West African Bar Association testified on behalf of the plaintiffs while Bayo Adaralegbe, a commercial lawyer, testified on behalf of Gen. Abubakar.
In his ruling on the exhaustion of Nigerian remedies, the Hon. Judge Kennelly sustained the Plaintiffs’ argument that there were no adequate remedies for them in Nigeria. Gen. Abubakar’s efforts to appeal the decision were unsuccessful as the District Court Judge denied his motion for certification for appeal. His appeal was subsequently dismissed by the U.S Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. In 2005, both the U.S Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and the United States Supreme Court also rejected Gen. Abubakar’s appeals against an earlier decision of the District Court in which the Court upheld its personal jurisdiction over him.
It could be recalled that the Court, on September 28, this year held Gen. Abubakar liable on all counts and accepted the Plaintiffs allegations against him as established for his consistent failure to attend his deposition despite an order of the Court compelling him to be deposed in the United States. Court records indicate that at a status hearing held on October 11, 2007, Gen, Abubakar made spirited attempts to depose Chief Enahoro and seek further supplemental evidence from the plaintiffs, but this was turned down by the Court. The Judge thereafter fixed the trial to determine the extent of damages against for December 10, 2007, warning that the date was a firm one.