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Organizations Can't Be Sued For Torture, High Court Rules

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that organizations cannot be sued for the torture under the Torture Victim Protection Act.

The decision came in the case of Azzam Mohamad Rahim, who immigrated to the United States in the 1970s and became a U.S. citizen. In 1995, while on a visit to his home village on the West Bank, he was taken into custody by Palestinian Authority intelligence officers; in the following days, he was allegedly imprisoned, tortured, and killed. The U.S. State Department issued a report classifying Rahim's death as an extra-judicial killing, while in the custody of the Palestinian Authority. .

Rahim's American family, filed suit against the Palestinian Authority and the PLO under the Torture Victim Protection Act, which authorizes lawsuits against "individuals" who commit acts of torture. The family argued that Congress intended the word "individual" to cover organizations.

But Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the court, rejected that argument as "unpersuasive."

"No one, we hazard to guess, refers in normal parlance to an organization as an 'individual,'" Sotomayor said, and there was no indication that Congress intended otherwise.

The Rahims had argued that organizations should not be precluded from liability because torture victims often are not be able to identify those who tortured them, but victims do know the organization responsible. The family also said that victims would have a difficult time recovering damages if they could only sue the torturers because these individuals likely would not have the money to pay damages assessed by a judge or jury.

Indeed, Justice Sotomayor acknowledged that only two victims have successfully recovered money from their torturers under the law, and in one of the cases, "only after the defendant won the state lottery."

She said that "there are no doubt valid arguments" to extend the law to cover organizations, but, she said that given the law's text and legislative history, " it is not the province" of the Court to do that.

Robert Tolchin, a lawyer for the family called on the U.S. government to take action now that the Supreme Court has ruled against the suit "on a technicality."

"We as the American government should not stand by and let a regime that we support, that we give money to, that we underwrite, torture and kill American citizens without any compensation," said Tolchin.

He said the State Department, having made an official finding in this case, should force the Palestinian Authority to pay damages to the family, he said.

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Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.