Filártiga v. Peña-Irala

Filártiga v. Peña-Irala, 630 F.2d 876 (2d Cir. 1980), was a landmark case in United States and international law. It set the precedent for United States federal courts to punish non-American citizens for tortious acts committed outside the United States that were in violation of public international law (the law of nations) or any treaties to which the United States is a party. It thus extends the jurisdiction of United States courts to tortious acts committed around the world. The case was decided by a panel of judges from the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit consisting of Judges Feinberg, Kaufman, and Kearse.

Filártiga v. Peña-Irala
CourtUnited States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
Full case nameDolly M. E. Filártiga and Joel Filártiga v. Americo Norberto Peña-Irala
ArguedOct. 16, 1979
DecidedJune 30, 1980
Citation(s)630 F.2d 876 (2d Cir. 1980)
Case history
Subsequent action(s)577 F.Supp. 860 (D.N.Y. 1984)
Court membership
Judge(s) sittingWilfred Feinberg, Irving R. Kaufman, Amalya Lyle Kearse
Case opinions
MajorityKaufman, joined by Feinberg, Kearse
Laws applied
Alien Tort Statute


The Filártiga family contended that on March 29, 1976, their seventeen-year-old son Joelito Filártiga was kidnapped and tortured to death by Américo Norberto Peña Irala. All parties were living in Paraguay at the time, and Peña was the Inspector General of Police in Asunción, the capital of Paraguay. Later that same day, police brought Dolly Filártiga (Joelito's sister) to see the body, which evidenced marks of severe torture. The Filártigas claimed that Joelito was tortured in retaliation for the political activities and beliefs of his father Joel Filártiga.

Filártiga brought murder charges against Peña and the police in Paraguay, but the case went nowhere. Subsequently, the Filártigas' attorney was arrested, imprisoned, and threatened with death. He was later allegedly disbarred without just cause.

In 1978, Dolly Filártiga and (separately) Américo Peña came to the United States. Dolly applied for political asylum, while Peña had stayed living and working illegally after entering under a visitor's visa. Dolly learned of Peña's presence in the United States and reported it to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, who arrested and deported Peña for staying well past the expiration of his visa.


When Peña was taken to the Brooklyn Navy Yard pending deportation, Filártiga lodged a civil complaint in U.S. courts, brought forth by the Center for Constitutional Rights, for Joelito's wrongful death by torture, asking for damages in the amount of $10 million.[1] After an initial district court dismissal citing precedents that limited the function of international law to relations between states, on appeal, the circuit ruled that freedom from torture was guaranteed under customary international law.[1] "The torturer has become – like the pirate and slave trader before him – hostis humani generis, an enemy of all mankind", wrote the court.

The appellants argued that Peña's actions had violated wrongful death statutes, the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, and other customary international law. Petitioner claimed the U.S. courts had jurisdiction to hear the case under the Alien Tort Statute, which grants district courts original jurisdiction to hear tort claims brought by an alien that have been "committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States".[2] This case interpreted that statute to grant jurisdiction over claims for torts committed both within the United States and abroad.


U.S. courts eventually ruled in favor of the Filártigas, awarding them roughly $10.4 million. Torture was clearly a violation of the law of nations, and the United States did have jurisdiction over the case since the claim was lodged when both parties were inside the United States. Additionally, Peña had sought to dismiss the case based on forum non conveniens, arguing that Paraguay was a more convenient location for the trial, but he did not succeed.[3]

Subsequent events

Following the judgment in Filártiga, there was a concern that the U.S. would evolve into a haven for international tort claims. In Kadic v Karadžić (1995), groups of Bosnian Croats and Muslims commenced proceedings against Serbia for war crimes in an American domestic court, with Radovan Karadžić being in the U.S. at the time. Karadžić was found not to be immune.

Following the Karadžić judgment, it was ruled in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain 542 U.S. 692 (2004) that Congress intended with the Alien Torts Statute that extraterritorial jurisdiction was allowed for only the most egregious international crimes. This was further limited in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., where it was affirmed that there was a strong presumption against extraterritoriality, causes of action must also apply to the American domestic Alien Torts Act and not to acts committed outside the United States. The Court concluded that nothing in the Statute’s text was sufficient to overcome the assumption against extraterritoriality.


  1. "Filártiga v. Peña-Irala". Center for Constitutional Rights. March 2007. Retrieved 2008-03-23.
  2. Alien Tort Statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1350
  3. 577 F.Supp. 860, 862 (D.N.Y. 1984)
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