Torture victim's family can't sue PLO for damages, Supreme Court says

US Supreme Court, in a narrow reading of a federal anti-torture law, ruled Wednesday against a son who sought redress from the PLO and Palestinian Authority for the death of his father, a US citizen, during a visit to the West Bank.

Alex Brandon/AP
US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor speaks during an event at the University of Pennsylvania Law School Thursday, April 5, in Philadelphia.

The relatives of a US citizen who was allegedly tortured and killed by Palestinian intelligence officers on the West Bank may not sue the Palestinian Authority or the PLO for damages under the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA).

The US Supreme Court ruled 9 to 0 on Wednesday that the 1991 antitorture law authorizes civil lawsuits only against an individual who actually carried out the torture or extrajudicial killing – not against an organization with which the alleged torturer or killer was associated.

The unanimous decision is important because it sharply limits the amount of damages available to victims under the TVPA by making clear that recovery is contingent on the assets of the alleged torturer or killer.

In contrast, if the statute had been interpreted to extend potential liability to deep-pocket organizations, significant recoveries would be more likely.

The 11-page decision in the case, Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority (11-88), was written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

The law says that “an individual” who subjects someone to torture or extrajudicial killing can be held liable under the TVPA for money damages.

The issue in the case was whether the TVPA could be enforced against both an individual and an organization involved in the torture or extrajudicial killing of a US citizen.

The issue arose in the case of Azzam Rahim, a US citizen of Palestinian heritage who died while being questioned by security officials on the West Bank.

Mr. Rahim immigrated to the US in the 1970s and became a successful businessman in Dallas. In 1995, he was arrested by Palestinian intelligence officials while on a visit to his boyhood village on the West Bank. He was taken to a prison in Jericho.

Two days later his body was delivered to his family. It was bruised and included cigarette burns and broken bones, suggesting he had been tortured prior to his death.

Rahim’s son, Asid Mohamad, filed a lawsuit in federal court in the US against three Palestinian officials, the Palestinian Authority, and the Palestine Liberation Organization. He charged that his father had been subjected to torture and extrajudicial killing in violation of the TVPA.

A federal judge dismissed the suit against the Palestinian Authority and the PLO. The judge said the TVPA is enforceable only against individuals who are personally responsible for Rahim’s torture and death. A panel of the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed that decision.

At issue before the Supreme Court was whether the lower courts were correct that only individuals may be sued under the TVRA, or whether organizations might also be held liable.

Justice Sotomayor said the case turned on the meaning of the word “individual” in the statute. “In petitioners’ view, by permitting suit against ‘an individual’ the TVPA contemplates liability against natural persons and nonsovereign organizations,” she wrote. “We decline to read ‘individual’ so unnaturally.”

Sotomayor said, “The ordinary meaning of the word, fortified by its statutory context, persuades us that the act authorizes suit against natural persons alone.”

The decision concludes: “The text of the TVPA convinces us that Congress did not extend liability to organizations, sovereign or not.”

“There are no doubt valid arguments for such an extension,” Sotomayor said. “But Congress has seen fit to proceed in more modest steps in the act, and it is not the province of this branch to do otherwise.”

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