US: Torture law doesn't apply to PLO, PA

US Supreme Court rejects lawsuit by Palestinian-born American whose family claims he was tortured, murdered in Jericho prison.

torture shackles prison 390 (photo credit: Thinkstock)
torture shackles prison 390
(photo credit: Thinkstock)
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.
The justices 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.
The lawsuit alleged that Rahim was tortured and killed in 1995 at a prison in Jericho while in the custody of PA intelligence officers.
Shurat Hadin 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,” Darshan-Leitner said.
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.
Rahim 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 interrogation.
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 yard.
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 said.
The PLO has denied the allegations.
Despite the court’s ruling, Shurat HaDin vowed on Thursday to continue its legal fight against the PA.
“From the court hearings, it was very clear that Rahim was indeed tortured and murdered by the PA,” Darshan- Leitner said.
The Supreme 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 abroad.
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 Torture.
The Supreme Court case is Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority, No. 11-88.