Dr. Joel Filártiga, 86, Dies; Won Human Rights Ruling in Son’s Death

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Dr. Joel Filártiga never forgot the advice that Alfredo Stroessner, the Paraguayan dictator, gave him one day.

Stroessner had come to pay a visit at the sprawling country manor owned by Dr. Filártiga’s father, a wealthy, well-connected tobacco exporter. And after a few drinks, as Dr. Filártiga would recall, Stroessner turned to young Joel and told him: “There are only three things in life that are worthwhile. Power, money and pleasure.”

Stroessner acquired all three, consolidating his grasp as a reviled and ruthless anti-Communist strongman who ruled Paraguay as Washington’s ally from 1954 until he was cashiered in a coup in 1989.

Dr. Filártiga, on the other hand, disregarded Stroessner’s counsel. He abandoned — some say betrayed — his family’s fortune. Rather than pursue pleasure, he instead found personal satisfaction — as the only doctor serving 30,000 poor peasants in what he called his Clinic of Hope in Ybycui, a town 60 miles southeast of Asunción, the capital.

And what power he procured came from his pen, as a human rights advocate who fought to avenge the torture of his teenage son during Stroessner’s rule. That campaign led to a signal victory in a United States court in 1980: a landmark ruling against foreign governments and their agents who commit torture.

John B. Bellinger III, the legal adviser to the State Department from 2005 to 2009, said in a public radio podcast interview in 2017 that since that ruling was handed down, the statute on which it was based has been “the source of almost all significant human rights litigation in the United States and indeed in the world.”

Dr. Filártiga, who died on July 5 in Asunción at 86, local officials said, was jailed and tortured himself as a dissident in a lifelong struggle for justice that inspired the 1991 HBO film “One Man’s War,” starring Anthony Hopkins as the doctor.

That crusade was heightened in 1976 by the death of Dr. Filártiga’s 17-year-old son, Joelito. The authorities said the youth had been killed in a crime of passion by a police officer, who claimed that Joelito had been having an affair with the officer’s wife.

In fact, the young man, a high school student who worked as a driver for his father’s clinic, had been abducted and tortured to extract incriminating information about his father.

Four hours later, Joelito’s older sister, Dolly Filártiga, was awakened, marched two doors away to the home of the Asunción police inspector general and shown her brother’s mutilated body. The inspector general, Americo Norberto Peña-Irala, told her: “Here you have what you have been looking for so long and what you deserve. Now shut up.”

When she discovered two years later that Mr. Peña-Irala had fled to Brooklyn and had overstayed his visa, she notified the American authorities, who issued a deportation order. The next day, the Filártigas sued him for wrongful death — the civil equivalent of murder — in federal court in New York.

They were represented by Peter Weiss and his colleagues from the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based legal team that specializes in civil rights and civil liberties cases.

Invoking the 1789 Alien Tort Claims Act, which was originally passed to protect against pirates and slave traders, Mr. Weiss and his fellow lawyers summoned as witnesses Jacobo Timerman, the former Argentine publisher whose account of his own jailing had generated indignation, and Robert E. White, a former United States ambassador to Paraguay and El Salvador.

Mr. Timerman testified on the psychological impact of torture and Mr. White on the state of civil liberties in Paraguay.

“It is fair to say that the Filártiga case changed history,” the Rev. Robert F. Drinan, a former Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, wrote in the foreword to Mr. White’s book “Breaking Silence: The Case That Changed the Face of Human Rights” (2004).

The Filártiga family’s claim to jurisdiction was initially rejected by the Federal District Court in Brooklyn. But in 1980, writing for the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan, the eminent jurist Judge Irving R. Kaufman overturned that decision in favor of the Filártigas.

Judge Kaufman’s decision expanded the principle of universal jurisdiction by ruling that foreign victims of torture that occurred abroad can sue for civil redress in the United States when the defendant — in this case Mr. Peña-Irala, then of Brooklyn — is within the dominion of American courts.

“That decision turned out to be not only a landmark in U.S. law,” Mr. Weiss, the Filártigas’ lawyer, wrote in 2011 in The Guardian, “but also one of the most important and most often cited human rights cases of the past three decades worldwide.”

In his ruling, Judge Kaufman likened the torturer to the pirate and the slave trader — “an enemy of all mankind” — and added, “Our holding today, giving effect to a jurisdictional provision enacted by our First Congress, is a small but important step in the fulfillment of the ageless dream to free all people from brutal violence.”

The Filártigas were later awarded more than $10 million in damages, but Mr. Peña-Irala had no assets to impound.

In 2013, the United States Supreme Court curtailed the breadth of Judge Kaufman’s ruling, limiting American jurisdiction to human rights abuses abroad that had a substantial connection to the United States.

Joel Holden Filártiga Ferreira was born on Aug. 15, 1932, in Ybytymi, about 60 miles southeast of Asunción. His father, Juan Bautista Filártiga, was a wealthy landowner.

Joel studied medicine at the National University of Asunción and at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. He opened his clinic in Ybycui in 1959 and worked there with his wife, Nidia, and his children. He was typically paid in livestock and produce.

In “Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life” (1983) — a book that profiled Dr. Filártiga and featured pen-and-ink drawings by him — the authors, Henri J. M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill and Douglas A. Morrison, wrote that Dr. Filártiga spoke to his patients in the indigenous Guarani language and listened to “the stories of their long struggles,” adding that he “suffers in his heart with them.”

An accomplished artist, Dr. Filártiga helped finance the clinic by selling his brutalist ink-on-paper drawings of deformed soldiers, ragged children and mothers sheltering their children.

“From his hands,” the authors of “Compassion” wrote, “have appeared shockingly powerful drawings in which the agony of the people of Paraguay is expressed and lifted up in an indignant protest.”

There was no information available on survivors.

In a ceremony last year, Dr. Filártiga, by then using a wheelchair, was awarded a plaque from the Paraguayan Senate citing his “unwavering fight for health, freedom and justice.”


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