WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A series of lawsuits against companies that did business with the former apartheid regime of South Africa should be dismissed, the Bush administration told the Supreme Court Tuesday.
The White House wants lawsuits against companies that did business with Apartheid South Africa dismissed.
The suits argue more than four dozen U.S. and foreign companies should be ordered to pay as much as $400 billion to South African blacks and others who suffered under that country's official policy of oppressive separation of the races between 1948 and 1994.
A federal court in October allowed the group of some 10 class-action lawsuits to proceed. The administration argues the appeals court was wrong to allow the "unprecedented and sprawling" suits to move forward.
The governments of Britain, Germany, Switzerland, and post-apartheid South Africa filed supporting memos.
The private suits were filed under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which allows foreigners access to American courts when they allege U.S. laws or treaties were violated. The Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act -- passed in 1986 over President Ronald Reagan's veto -- banned U.S. companies from establishing new trade and business with South Africa. Other nations had similar laws.
Among the key plaintiffs is Lungisile Ntsebeza, a sociology professor at the University of Cape Town. He was arrested by the South African government in 1976 and spent nearly six years in prison for his anti-apartheid activism. He said he was beaten and tortured while in custody, and later was banished for six years in a remote part of the country.
In his lawsuit, Ntsebeza's lawyers say companies that continued to do business in his homeland provided "resources, such as technology, money and oil to the South African government," which in turn used it "to further its policies of oppression and persecution of the African majority."
The lawsuit is part of a years-long global effort to hold a range of parties accountable for decades of human rights violations in South Africa.
South Africa's current black-majority government opposes the lawsuit, saying it would hurt its ongoing efforts to foster reconciliation and improve the economic security of all its citizens.
The Bush administration, in its brief, said, "Litigation such as this would also interfere with the ability of the U.S. government to employ the full range of foreign policy options when interacting with regimes the United States would like to influence. ... Such policies would be greatly undermined if the corporations that invest or operate in a foreign country are subjected to lawsuits under the ATS."
The Justice Department argued the Alien Tort Statute allows lawsuits only against the South African government, not companies that allegedly "aided and abetted" repressive polices.
The Supreme Court is expected to decide in coming weeks whether to accept the case for review. If it does, oral arguments would be held in the fall. E-mail to a friend