March 31, 2011 - In 1976, 17-year-old Joelito Filártiga was abducted and later tortured to death by Americo Norberto Peña-Irala, the inspector general in the Department of Investigation for the Police of Asunsion. His sister Dolly was forced out of her house in the middle of the night to view her brother’s mutilated body. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed the landmark Filártiga v. Peña Irala case on behalf of Joelito's sister Dolly and father Dr. Joel Filártiga, a well-known physician, painter, and opponent of Latin America’s “most durable dictator,” General Alfredo Stroessner.
In 1980, CCR won Filártiga in the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and established the Circuit Court of Appeals in California concerning the legal status of the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), reviving the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a 1789 federal statute that was little-used prior to this case. The ATS grants district courts jurisdiction to hear tort claims for actions that were "committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States," giving foreign nationals the right to sue in U.S. Courts for wrongful actions that violate international law. The statute continues to be an important weapon for victims of torture, genocidal campaigns and other serious abuses committed by governments and corporations.
The decision was a precedent for claims involving an increasing number of internationally recognized rights, such as the right to life, liberty and security of person as well as freedom from torture, slavery, genocide and cruel and inhuman treatment. CCR’s litigation in Filártiga paved the way for the modern day use of the ATS and has been hailed by experts in this country and abroad as a watershed case for international human rights.
The Center for Constitutional Rights wrote the following letter to Dolly Filártiga and Dr. Filártiga in honor of the anniversary of Joelito's murder.
Dear Dolly and Joel:On this 35th anniversary of the cruel death of your beloved Joelito, the CCR community wants you to know that you are and will forever be in their hearts and their memory.
Your courage and steadfastness during the difficult years of the litigation and beyond will serve as a shining model for other human rights defenders. Know that "the Filartiga case" was truly a case heard around the world. It set a precedent for survivors of torture and other grave human rights crimes going to court themselves, even beyond national frontiers, to seek justice, instead of relying on often unreliable governments to provide justice for them.
You should be very proud of this achievement. Joelito would have been proud as well, had he lived.
In solidarity,The Center for Constitutional RightsMarch 2011
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, The Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.