The Palestinian Authority and the PLO cannot be sued under a 1991 US victim
protection law over the alleged torture of an American citizen in a West Bank
prison, the US Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday.
The court held that the
law only applies to individuals and not to organizations.
unanimously agreed with the Obama administration that the Torture Victim
Protection Act allowed civil lawsuits in US courts only against a person who had
engaged in torture or killing, not against groups.
The lawsuit was
brought by the Tel Aviv-based civil rights group the Israel Law Center (Shurat
HaDin) on behalf of the widow and sons of a naturalized American citizen,
Palestinian-born Azzam Rahim, who was raised in the West Bank.
lawsuit alleged that Rahim was tortured and killed in 1995 at a prison in
Jericho while in the custody of PA intelligence officers.
director attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner said on Thursday that the organization
regretted the Supreme Court’s decision to reject the suit, and that it had done
so “because of a single word.”
“Even though three members of the
Palestinian security forces participated in an act of torture and murder, the
court had to dismiss the claim against the PA because of a technicality, since
the law refers to a person who tortures another, not a group or body,”
She added that the ruling “only serves to highlight
the problems with the law itself,” because it was very difficult to bring an
individual perpetrator of torture to justice, especially when that individual
was acting on behalf of a terrorist group or a rogue regime.
immigrated to the US in the 1970s, but continued to do business in the West
Bank. On a visit to the PA-controlled West Bank in 1995, he was arrested by PA
officers, who allegedly told his family they would release him after
The lawsuit alleged that a few days later, an ambulance
arrived at a house belonging to Rahim’s family, and threw Rahim’s body into the
Palestinian officials allegedly ordered the family to bury the body
in secret. Rahim’s brothers, American citizens, contacted the US Consulate in
Jerusalem, which ordered them to bring Rahim’s body to the L. Greenberg
Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir in Tel Aviv. A postmortem revealed
that Rahim was severely tortured and died during his interrogation, the lawsuit
The PLO has denied the allegations.
Despite the court’s
ruling, Shurat HaDin vowed on Thursday to continue its legal fight against the
“From the court hearings, it was very clear that Rahim was indeed
tortured and murdered by the PA,” Darshan- Leitner said.
Court hearing came after a US appellate court dismissed the lawsuit and ruled
that the law approved by Congress said that it only applied to individuals, not
political groups or other organizations.
“We hold that the term
‘individual’ as used in the act encompasses only natural persons. Consequently,
the act does not impose liability against organizations,” Justice Sonia
Sotomayor wrote in the court’s opinion. She added that Congress made that clear
in the law’s text.
Sotomayor said the ordinary, everyday meaning of
“individual” referred to a human being, not an organization, and Congress gave
no indication it intended anything different.
She said the arguments by
those who brought the lawsuit were not persuasive.
Their lawyers argued
that precluding liability by organizations may foreclose effective remedies for
victims and their relatives. But Sotomayor said Congress appeared well aware of
the limits it had placed on lawsuits.
In late February, the court heard
arguments in the case and in a related case dealing with whether corporations or
only individuals can be sued under another US law, the Alien Tort Statute that
dates to the 18th century.
The justices in March decided to hear
arguments in their new term starting in October on a broader question in the
other case – whether US courts have jurisdiction to hear lawsuits against
multinational corporations or others for alleged human rights abuses committed
A number of human rights groups and individuals added themselves
to the Shurat HaDin lawsuit as amici curiae (“friends of the court”), including
former US Sen.
Arlen Spector, the Yale Law School Center for Global Legal
Challenges and Prof. Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on
The Supreme Court case is Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority, No.