In the summer of 2017, dozens of Lyft passengers in Northern Virginia were sent a driver named Yusuf Abdi Ali. He had a high rating on the ride-hailing app, and had made at least 76 trips as a Lyft driver until last September, the company said.
But Mr. Ali, who also drove for Uber, had a secret history: He was a former Somali National Army commander accused of torture and attempted extrajudicial killing, according to a civil complaint that was filed in Virginia in 2004.
This week, a jury in the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia found Mr. Ali “liable for the torture” of a Somali villager named Farhan Mohamoud Tani Warfaa in the 1980s. Mr. Warfaa, 48, who lives in Somalia and came to the United States to testify this month, was awarded $500,000 in damages. Mr. Ali, who is now in his mid-60s, is unlikely to be able to pay, a lawyer representing him said.
The jury did not find Mr. Ali guilty of attempted extrajudicial killing, one of the two charges in the complaint. His lawyer, Joseph Peter Drennan, said Mr. Ali denied both of the charges.
The case highlighted how ride-sharing app drivers with suspect histories can still pass background checks that rely on criminal, driving and sex offender registries, as well as F.B.I. and Interpol databases.
Stories about Mr. Ali, who lives in Springfield, Va., circulated for years before he was taken on as an independent contractor for Lyft and Uber.
A documentary by CBC News in 1992 highlighted allegations that he had “executed, tortured and maimed countless people” during Somalia’s civil war before moving to Canada. Last week, CNN published an investigative report that described how its reporters got into his vehicle, a Nissan Altima, while he was driving for Uber with an “Uber Pro Diamond” rating of 4.89.
Mr. Ali drove for Uber for 18 months, the company said, adding that all drivers must undergo a criminal and driving history check. “This individual’s access to the app has been permanently removed,” Uber said.
Lyft said in a statement on Wednesday, the day after the Virginia jury’s verdict, that Mr. Ali had passed his criminal background check after applying to start driving for the company in August 2017. Then he passed an annual criminal background check in 2018, the company said.
“The safety of our community is our top priority and we are horrified by the allegations described,” said Campbell Matthews, a Lyft spokeswoman. “We permanently banned this driver from our community and stand ready to assist law enforcement with any investigation.”
Mr. Drennan, Mr. Ali’s lawyer, criticized the “implication he was hiding something.”
The civil complaint fills out some of the missing details in Mr. Ali’s story that background checks did not pick up, tracing his path from Somalia to Canada and then to the United States, where he ended up as a security officer and a driver in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Court documents in January stated that Mr. Ali, who is a native of Somalia and a permanent resident of the United States, had previously been a guard at Washington Dulles International Airport, but that he had lost his job after a CNN report in 2016 revealed his background.
Asked about his employment at Dulles, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority said in an email this week that Mr. Ali had undergone a “federally mandated vetting process” for the unarmed security position through a contractor, Master Security. It included a criminal check by the F.B.I. and a threat assessment by the Transportation Security Administration, the authority said.
Criminal charges could not be brought against Mr. Ali in the United States because the alleged crimes were committed in Somalia at a time when the United States did not have a criminal torture statute, said Kathy Roberts of the Center for Justice and Accountability, a nonprofit group that works to identify and prosecute human rights violators.
But civil suits in such cases are permitted under the United States Torture Victim Protection Act.
“It has been a long journey seeking justice for what happened to me and to my community,” Mr. Warfaa said in a statement released on Wednesday by Ms. Roberts, his lead lawyer.
Mr. Drennan said his client had never seen Mr. Warfaa before December 2018, when Mr. Warfaa was deposed in the United States.
“We are obviously disappointed in the verdict, and Mr. Ali stands on his testimony at the trial in which he denies emphatically that he was either anyone who had tortured this person or attempted to kill this person or had even seen this person before,” he said.
The Center for Justice and Accountability started looking into Mr. Ali while it was working with Somalis living outside their country on a case against the former prime minister, Mohamed Ali Samantar, who was living in Virginia in 2004.
In 2004, after investigative trips to Somalia to interview witnesses, the center filed Mr. Warfaa’s case, working alongside lawyers in Virginia from the firm DLA Piper. The lawsuit initially included war crimes and crimes against humanity charges, but those were dismissed by June 2017, leaving the remaining two charges, Ms. Roberts said.
The civil complaint said that from 1984 to 1989, Mr. Ali was the commander of the Fifth Brigade of the Somali National Army, stationed in or near the northern city of Gebiley, where it was allied with the military government under Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre that had come to power in 1969.
There, Mr. Ali “directed, and participated in, a brutal counterinsurgency campaign that refused to distinguish between civilians and combatants,” the complaint said.
Mr. Warfaa was a member of the Isaaq clan, a seminomadic group that lived in an agricultural region of northern Somalia, and whose members were seen as potential opponents to General Barre. After an opposition force called the Somali National Movement formed there, civilians who were seen as its supporters were tortured and killed, the complaint said.
One of them, according to the complaint, was Mr. Warfaa, a farmer living in a village, Jifo Uray, near Gebiley. In December 1987, Mr. Warfaa was seized by soldiers from the Fifth Brigade and detained at their headquarters in Gebiley, the complaint said.
From January to March of 1988, he was beaten, chained and kicked “no fewer than nine times,” the complaint said.
“On more than one occasion,” it said, Mr. Ali “was present while he was tortured.”
The complaint described some of the abuse: “The soldiers tightly tied his hands and feet together behind his back so that his body was arched backward in a slightly-tilted U shape, with his arms and legs high in the air, causing him excruciating pain.”
“This form of torture was called the ‘Mig,’” the complaint continued, “because it placed the prisoner’s body in a shape that resembled the Somali Air Force’s MIG aircraft, with its swept-back wings.”
Mr. Ali also fired five shots at Mr. Warfaa, striking him in the wrist and leg, and then instructed his subordinates to bury him, the complaint said. The guards noticed he was still alive, and Mr. Warfaa’s family bribed them to release him, the complaint said.
Mr. Drennan said that Mr. Ali did not deny that he was an army commander or that the government had “a bad human rights record,” but that Mr. Ali had testified that “he was not a part of that.”
Mr. Drennan said it was clear to both him and to his client that Mr. Warfaa “was tortured by some group during this period, and we never contested that.”
Just before General Barre fell from power in 1991, Mr. Ali left Somalia for Canada, but he was deported in 1992 “for having committed gross human rights abuses in Somalia.”
He then entered the United States, but left after the authorities started deportation proceedings, the complaint said. Mr. Drennan said Mr. Ali went to Ethiopia in 1994 to join conferences on setting up a new government in Somalia.
Mr. Ali returned to the United States in December 1996, the court documents say. Mr. Drennan said he returned to the United States, based on a petition from his spouse, a Somali-American woman living in Northern Virginia. The Department of Homeland Security said it could not comment because of privacy concerns.