It's not clear whether Yves Michel Fotso has ever even been to Eugene.
But that hasn't stopped the jailed citizen of Cameroon from filing a $10 million federal lawsuit here, accusing his government of false imprisonment and torture.
Fotso, the former general manager of Cameroon Airlines, is being tried in a Cameroon criminal court on embezzlement charges. The government alleges that he conspired with two other former Cameroon officials to embezzle $31 million that the African nation paid a defunct Medford aircraft brokerage firm in 2001 as a "trust deposit" for purchase or lease of three jets. Cameroon prosecutors allege that the money ended up in a Swiss bank account registered to Fotso. He has denied the allegations.
Eugene attorney Kelly Beckley, who filed the lawsuit on Fotso's behalf, declined to discuss it, saying he doesn't want to jeopardize his client's fate in the criminal matter.
But the Medford company's 2004 bankruptcy proceeding took place at the Eugene federal courthouse and underlies Fotso's false imprisonment claim.
His lawsuit says Cameroon was among the parties that received partial payment of their claims against the company, GIA International Ltd., in an August 2006 settlement of the bankruptcy case.
Listings for companies certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to sell aircraft included three that shared the same Medford address: 823 Alder Creek Drive. The companies, whose certifications expired in 2004 and 2005, were listed as GIA International, Ltd.; TIA International, Ltd.; and GIA Capital, LLC. Russell Meek was named in the bankruptcy documents as the chief executive officer of GIA International and listed the same Alder Creek Drive address.
In exchange for its $858,163 payment in the bankruptcy settlement, Cameroon signed a release of liability to other parties in the case — including Cameroon Airlines. That release prohibited the country, located south of Nigeria in west-central Africa, from making any claim or initiating any action "in any manner" against Cameroon Airlines or its agents and employees, including Fotso, his U.S. complaint alleges.
The complaint names the Republic of Cameroon, its 30-year president, Paul Biya, and several judicial and military officials, as defendants. It charges that Cameroon "breached its duty" under the release agreement when it initiated criminal actions against Fotso in December 2010. Cameroon has accused him and others of fraudulently diverting $31 million that the country paid GIA up front for the purchase of a new Boeing business jet for Biya, and the lease of a Boeing 747 and a Boeing 767. The Medford firm, which was not registered to do business in Oregon, became insolvent soon after.
According to a World Bank report, Cameroon may have used the Medford broker and paid cash up front to hide the aircraft purchases from the bank, which had restricted the country's spending of loaned funds under its Highly Indebted Poor Country Initiative.
Fotso's suit cites federal law asserting U.S. jurisdiction over foreign states in actions "based upon a commercial activity carried on in the United States by the foreign state or upon an act performed in the United States in connection with the commercial activity of the foreign state elsewhere."
The lawsuit alleges that Fotso was arrested and imprisoned at the Yaounde Central Prison-Kondengui, where he was held for more than 12 hours each day in a small windowless cell without access to natural or artificial light or fresh air. In May of this year, he was taken from that prison for transfer to another lockup in Cameroon's state department. En route, he was "beaten, kicked, shocked with electricity, and otherwise subjected to physical and emotional torture by hooded lockup soldiers," his lawsuit alleges.
It also charges that Fotso has been denied pen and paper or reading materials. It says he has only occasionally been allowed to see a lawyer, and those visits were monitored by the government.
Fotso's lawsuit says the United States has jurisdiction over those alleged human rights violations under the Alien Tort Claim Act, which proclaims the U.S. courts a forum for redress when state-sponsored actions anywhere violate human rights recognized under international law. The suit also cites a federal law giving U.S. courts jurisdiction over state-sponsored torture abroad.
Cameroon officials did not respond to a request for comment made through its government website.
Beckley said Fotso's civil claim was referred to him by a fellow attorney who practices in the District of Oregon federal bankruptcy court.
Beckley, who has been in private practice locally for 33 years, has some unique professional experience that explains why.
"I have some international law experience," said Beckley, referencing his five years of active duty and 25 years of reserve duty with the U.S. Air Force. "I retired in 2004 as a reserve colonel in the Air Force JAG (the service branch's military justice and military law corps). My last assignment was almost six years as the senior reserve judge advocate at the U.S. European Command Headquarters."
That work included some participation in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former country of Yugoslavia, investigating allegations of human rights abuses and torture in the region.