High court limits suits under torture victim law

Posted April 18, 2012, at 5:42 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that organizations may not be sued for claims they aided in torture or killings abroad under a law aimed at helping torture victims.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the court’s opinion dismissing the lawsuit filed by the family of an American who died in the custody of Palestinian intelligence officers in Jericho in 1995. The family wanted to sue the Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation Organization under the Torture Victim Protection Act.

Sotomayor said the 1992 law’s use of the word “individual” is persuasive evidence that only people may be sued over claims they took part in torture.

The court has already said that a second case over another, older law that has been used by torture victims won’t be decided until next year.

The sons and widow of Azzam Rahim filed their lawsuit after Rahim’s death while on a visit to the West Bank. The Palestinian-born Rahim was a naturalized U.S. citizen who was beaten and died in the custody of the Palestinian authorities. Three officers were jailed for their role in the case, according to a State Department report.

But when Rahim’s relatives sought money damages for his death, the federal appeals court in Washington said they could not use the 1992 law to go after the Palestinian organizations. The law may be applied only to “natural persons,” the appeals court said. Other appeals courts have ruled differently.

The law says an individual who acts on behalf of a foreign nation can be held liable in a civil lawsuit for torturing or killing people.

Rahim’s family sough to persuade the justices that the word “individual” could be read to include organizations. The high court said Rahim’s case was correctly decided.

“We decline to read ‘individual’ so unnaturally. The ordinary meaning of the word, fortified by its statutory context, persuades us that the act authorizes suits against natural persons alone,” Sotomayor said.

Robert Tolchin, the family’s Brooklyn-based lawyer, said the State Department should demand that the Palestinian Authority pay the family compensation for Rahim’s death, in spite of the court outcome. “What happened here was not a vindication of justice. They let them off on a technicality based on the wording of the statute,” Tolchin said.

Rahim’s case was paired with a more closely watched lawsuit about the limits of the 223-year-old Alien Tort Statute. In March, the court put off a decision in a case asking whether businesses could be sued under the 1789 law for their alleged complicity in war crimes, killings and other atrocities that take place in foreign countries.

Instead, the court said it would consider even broader questions about the reach of the law, including whether foreigners even have a right to use American courts to sue those they claim are responsible for human rights abuses abroad.

That case will be argued in the fall.

The case decided Wednesday is Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority, 11-88.

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