The relatives of a US citizen who was tortured and killed by Palestinian intelligence officers may not sue the Palestinian Authority or the PLO for damages under the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA).
The Christian Science Monitor reported that the US Supreme Court ruled 9 to 0 on Wednesday that the 1991 anti-torture 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.
Azzam Rahim, a US citizen of Palestinian heritage, died during his interrogation by Palestinian Authority security personnel. Rahim, a Dallas businessman, had been arrested in 1995 by Palestinian Intelligence, while visiting his family village, and was jailed in Jericho. Two days later his body was returned to his family, bruised and marked with cigarette burns and broken bones.
Rahim’s son filed a lawsuit in US federal court against three Palestinian officials, the Palestinian Authority, and the PLO, charging that his father had been tortured to death in violation of the TVPA. A federal court and then a panel of the appeals court dismissed the suit.
The 11-page decision in the case, Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority (11-88), was written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The Court has, apparently, ruled on the letter, rather than on the spirit of the law, which says that “an individual” who subjects someone to torture or extrajudicial killing can be held liable under the TVPA for money damages.
This would be tantamount to suing the driver of the bus that crashed through your bay windows, but not the bus company.
Or, since we’re commemorating Yom HaShoah today, the new decision would direct Holocaust victims to drag their camp commandant to court, but not the German government.
The unanimous decision severely limits the options available to victims under the TVPA, because now it has become clear that recovery of damages will depend on the assets of the torturer or killer, not the outfit that hired him or her to torture or kill.
Justice Sotomayor wrote: “In petitioners’ view, by permitting suit against ‘an individual’ the TVPA contemplates liability against natural persons and nonsovereign organizations. We decline to read ‘individual’ so unnaturally.”
Sotomayor added, “The ordinary meaning of the word, fortified by its statutory context, persuades us that the act authorizes suit against natural persons alone.”
The Court is probably urging Congress to fix the law, with Sotomayor’s conclusion: “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, 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.”