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Supreme Court rules political organizations immune from torture act liability

The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled unanimously [opinion, PDF] Wednesday in Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] that political organizations including the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization are immune from liability under the Torture Victims Protection Act of 1992 (TVPA) [text]. The petitioners, relatives of a US citizen who was purportedly tortured and killed by Palestinian Authority officers during a visit to the West Bank, claimed human rights violations pursuant to the TVPA against an entity other than an individual person. The TVPA allows lawsuits to be brought in US courts against "any individual who, under actual or apparent authority, or color of law, of any foreign nation" subjects another individual to torture. The court, in reaching its conclusion, relied on the "ordinary, everyday meaning" of the word "individual," as well as federal statutes and a lack of Congressional intent that the language in the statute refer to a political or corporate entity. The court found the language to be unambiguous, and rejected the petitioners' assertions that legislative history and other federal tort statutes suggest the term "individual" should be read to include corporate and political entities.

The court's decision resolves a circuit split "with respect to whether the TVPA authorizes actions against defendants that are not natural persons." In February, the court heard arguments [JURIST report] in the related case of Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] about whether three oil companies are immune from US lawsuits under the Alien Tort Statute of 1789 (ATS) [text] for alleged torture and international law violations that took place overseas. The court is slated to hear rearguments next term in Kiobel to determine whether the ATS allows US courts to hear lawsuits for overseas violations of international law.

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