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Torture victim's family can't sue PLO for damages, Supreme Court says

US Supreme Court, in a narrow reading of a federal anti-torture law, ruled Wednesday against a son who sought redress from the PLO and Palestinian Authority for the death of his father, a US citizen, during a visit to the West Bank.

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US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor speaks during an event at the University of Pennsylvania Law School Thursday, April 5, in Philadelphia.

Alex Brandon/AP

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The relatives of a US citizen who was allegedly tortured and killed by Palestinian intelligence officers on the West Bank may not sue the Palestinian Authority or the PLO for damages under the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA).

The US Supreme Court ruled 9 to 0 on Wednesday that the 1991 antitorture 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.

The unanimous decision is important because it sharply limits the amount of damages available to victims under the TVPA by making clear that recovery is contingent on the assets of the alleged torturer or killer.

In contrast, if the statute had been interpreted to extend potential liability to deep-pocket organizations, significant recoveries would be more likely.

The 11-page decision in the case, Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority (11-88), was written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

The law says that “an individual” who subjects someone to torture or extrajudicial killing can be held liable under the TVPA for money damages.

The issue in the case was whether the TVPA could be enforced against both an individual and an organization involved in the torture or extrajudicial killing of a US citizen.

The issue arose in the case of Azzam Rahim, a US citizen of Palestinian heritage who died while being questioned by security officials on the West Bank.

Mr. Rahim immigrated to the US in the 1970s and became a successful businessman in Dallas. In 1995, he was arrested by Palestinian intelligence officials while on a visit to his boyhood village on the West Bank. He was taken to a prison in Jericho.

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