Justices reject suit over Saudi torture Court also upholds child detentions

March 24, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- An American who worked overseas for the Saudi Arabian government cannot complain in U.S. courts about being jailed there on trumped-up charges and tortured by security police, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 yesterday.

In a separate decision with potentially broad sweep, the court ruled 5-4 yesterday that children without parents or a guardian who are picked up by law enforcement officers have no constitutional right to be let out of a government detention facility, even if they are not accused of a crime.

The children in the case wanted to be placed in private homes until their legal fate was settled.

The Saudi Arabia ruling spares the Saudi government, a government-run hospital there and a Maryland company that acts for the Saudis in this country from any damages in a lawsuit filed by a Florida man after he spent 39 harrowing days in a Saudi jail.

The court's decision barring U.S. courts from hearing the Floridian's claims of torture in a Saudi jail nearly nine years ago was based on a federal law that allows foreign governments to be sued in U.S. courts only in narrow situations.

U.S. law grants foreign nations immunity from legal challenges here to official government acts but not for actions taken while operating a commercial enterprise. But the court ruled that the only acts challenged in the Florida man's case were the actions of Saudi security police, and thus his lawsuit was blocked.

Scott Nelson of Miami, joined in the lawsuit by his wife, Vivian, claimed that the Saudi government, the hospital where he worked and the Saudi hospital supply company in the United States -- Royspec Purchasing Services, based at Baltimore-Washington International Airport -- were responsible for the abuses he suffered after his arrest on phony charges.

The Maryland company, assigned to be the Nelson family's contact here while Mr. Nelson was overseas, was sued as jointly responsible for all the wrongs done to him.

Mr. Nelson had gone to work at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh in December 1984 to monitor safety compliance and other technical operations of the hospital. He later said that he found violations of safety rules at the hospital and began reporting them even though he said he was told to ignore the problems.

When he failed to stop his "whistle-blowing," his lawsuit claimed, hospital officials called in official security police. He claims he was jailed immediately, on charges never spelled out, and was tortured, beaten and denied food for four days.

U.S. Embassy officials, doubting Mr. Nelson's claims, made no protest to the Saudi government. Eventually, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., intervened to gain Mr. Nelson his freedom after he had spent 39 days in jail.

A federal judge threw out the Nelson case, but a federal appeals court revived it early in 1991, saying that the entire affair was linked to the Saudis' commercial activities, not to official government acts.

The Supreme Court majority, in a widely split decision, barred all the Nelsons' claims for a variety of reasons. Six justices said all those claims were keyed to actions of government security police, not commercial operations of the government or hospital. Only one of the nine justices voted to allow the Nelsons' case to go forward.

Although the court's separate decision on children involved illegal aliens taken into custody by immigration officials, the majority's wide-ranging opinion appeared likely to affect children being held in other kinds of official custody, such as in orphanages or state hospitals.

Now that such children have no constitutional right to be released, they will be able to get out of a state institution only if a particular state chooses to allow that -- as Maryland does in some cases.

A five-justice majority, in a broadly worded opinion, said the Constitution does not guarantee children a right to be released from custody, pending final action on their future fate, if the facility in which they are held is "good enough" to satisfy the usual standards for juvenile delinquents' detention.

The decision upheld a federal policy barring the release of those alien children to anyone except a parent, close relative or a guardian.

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