Mohamed v. Palestinian Authority

CJA filed an amicus brief in support of the family of Azzam Rahim, a U.S. citizen allegedly tortured and killed by the Palestinian Authority (P.A.).  On April 18, 2012, the Supreme Court held that the P.A. could not be held liable for torture and extrajudicial killing under the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) because the Act imposes liability only on natural persons (i.e., individual human beings), not on the entities they serve.

Case History

While visiting the West Bank, Azzam Rahim, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was allegedly detained, tortured, and killed by Palestinian Authority intelligence officers. Rahim’s relatives sued the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Liberation Organization under the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA), 28 U.S.C. § 1350 , note § 2(a), which authorizes lawsuits against an “individual who, under actual or apparent authority, or color of law, of any foreign nation” subjects another to torture or extrajudicial killing.

The District Court dismissed the case, finding that the TVPA’s authorization of suits against “individuals” extended only to “natural person” defendants—i.e., individual human beings.  Mohamad v. Rajoub, 664 F.Supp.2d 20, 22-24 (D.D.C. 2009). Thus, organizations like the Palestinian Authority or a corporation could not be sued for torture under the statute.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal on the same grounds.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted cert and consolidated Mohamed with a sister case, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell Petroleum.  Kiobel asked the related question of whether corporations could be sued for international law violations under the Alien Tort Statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1350.   On February 28, 2012, the Court heard oral argument in both cases (Transcript; Audio).

CJA’s Amicus Brief

CJA filed an amicus brief in support of Rahim’s family in Kiobel and in support of the petitioners in Kiobel.  Filed on behalf of Dr. Juan Romagoza Arce, Cecilia Santos Moran, and Ken Wiwa, our brief argues that holding organizations liable for human rights abuses is essential to give victims effective remedy.  Too often, natural person defendants may be outside jurisdictional reach or judgment-proof, and their individual role in collective acts of violence may be obscured by a bureaucratic structure.  Further, extending TVPA liability to non-governmental or business entities reflects the reality that such organizations can and do commit abuses.  Entity liability provides redress and promotes healing for torture survivors and their communities.

Supreme Court Limits Entity Liability Under the TVPA

On April 18, 2012, however, the Supreme Court held that the term “individual” as used in the TVPA includes only natural persons.  As a consequence, the TVPA does not impose liability on organizations for torture or killings committed by their agents.  The Court looked to the TVPA’s text.  In a statute, the term “person” ordinarily refers to both individuals and organizations.  The TVPA, however, limits defendants to “individuals.”  In the Court’s view, this indicated that Congress only intended to impose liability on natural persons.

A Silver lining: Supreme Court Embraces Command Responsibility for Torture and Extrajudicial Killing

Importantly, the Court clarified that the TVPA still contemplates liability against officers who do not personally execute the torture or extrajudicial killing.  Citing CJA’s case Chavez v. Carranza, 559 F.3d 486 (6th Cir. 2009), Justice Sotomayor noted that superior officers are liable for their subordinates’ abuses under the command responsibility doctrine: “An officer who gives an order to torture or kill is an “individual” in that word’s ordinary usage; an organization is not.”  Thus, under the TVPA, responsible senior officers are still liable for torture and killing, even if the entity they serve is not.



Merits Briefs for the Petitioners

Merits Brief for Respondents

Amicus Briefs in Support of the Petitioners

Amicus Briefs in Support of Neither Party

Amicus Briefs in Support of the Respondents