Filártiga v. Peña-Irala Historic Case

At a Glance

Date Filed: 

April 6, 1979

Current Status 

The court awarded the Filártigas over $10 million in damages. CCR attorneys continued for many years to investigate ways to enforce the award.


Dr. Joel Filártiga and Dolly Filártiga

Case Description 

On April 6, 1979, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Filártiga v. Peña-Irala was filed on behalf of Dr. Joel Filártiga and Dolly Filártiga charging former Paraguayan official Americo Peña-Irala with the wrongful death of Joelito Filártiga. The landmark case pioneered the human rights application of a previously little-used 1789 federal statute, the Alien Tort Claims Act, which gives foreign nationals the right to sue for wrongful actions that violate international law.

Dolly Filártiga and her younger brother Joelito lived in Asuncion, Paraguay, with their mother and their father, Dr. Joel Filártiga, a well-known physician, painter, and opponent of Latin America’s “most durable dictator,” General Alfredo Stroessner. In 1976, 17-year-old Joelito 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. Dolly Filártiga was forced out of her house in the middle of the night to view her brother’s mutilated body.

Although the district court initially stayed Peña-Irala’s deportation, it ultimately granted his motion to dismiss the complaint and allowed his return to Paraguay, ruling that, although the proscription of torture had become “a norm of customary international law,” the court was bound to follow appellate precedents which narrowly limited the function of international law only to relations between states.

On appeal, the circuit reversed, recognizing that foreign nationals who are victims of international human rights violations may sue their malfeasors in federal court for civil redress, even for acts that occurred abroad, so long as the court has personal jurisdiction over the defendant. The court ruled that freedom from torture is guaranteed under customary international law. This decision provides a critical forum for human rights violations. 

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) attorneys had briefed the meaning of international law in view of the post-Nuremberg emergence of an international law of human rights applicable to individuals as well as states. CCR explored the origin of the act as a source of federal judicial power over matters of international dimension and its purpose in preventing the sanctuary this country offers to the persecuted from immunizing international criminals. Today’s torturers, CCR argued, are like eighteenth century pirates—enemies of all humanity (hostes humani generis)—and should pay for their crimes wherever they are found.

Asked by the court to submit an amicus brief, the State Department, influenced perhaps by the Iran hostage crisis, supported CCR's view of international law and the scope of the act’s jurisdiction. The circuit court completely rejected its earlier narrow interpretation of international law and opened the door of the federal courts to civil actions by aliens and citizens alike for damages for human rights violations. The decision was a precedent for claims involving an increasing number of internationally recognized rights, including freedom from torture, slavery, genocide, and cruel and inhuman treatment. It was been hailed by international human rights experts in this country and abroad.

Upon remand by the circuit in June 1980, the district court granted plaintiffs’ motion for a default judgment against Peña-Irala for failure to answer the complaint and referred the case to a magistrate for determination of the damages due the Filártiga family. The magistrate awarded the Filártigas over $10 million in damages. CCR attorneys continued for many years to investigate ways to enforce the award.