In September of 1995, Azzam Rahim, an American citizen, was tortured and murdered while in the custody of Palestinian Authority intelligence officers in Jericho.

The plaintiffs were Palestinian-Americans whose father and husband had been kidnapped, tortured, and killed by Palestinian Authority police who were trying to shake him down for protection money. All this was confirmed in a US  State Department report, after an autopsy under American auspices, and Yassir Arafat even admitted what happened and apologized to the family. The petitioners, Azzam Rahim’s widow and children, filed suit against the respondents under the Torture Victim Protection Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1350 (TVPA).

The defendants, Jibril Rajoub, Amin Al-Hindi, Twfik Tirawi, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), never disputed liability for the torture and murder. The PA’s defense was not that they did not do what was alleged; rather, they found a loophole in the law: as the statute is phrased only “individuals” could be sued, not “organizations” such as the PA.

The District Court dismissed the petitioners’ action against the PA and the PLO on the grounds that the TVPA permits actions against natural persons only. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision.

The Supreme Court of the United States then dealt with the question of whether the TVPA permits action against defendants who are not natural persons. The Court affirmed the decision of the United States Court of Appeals, and held that the word “individual” in the TVPA means a natural person and does not impose any liability against organizations. The Court ruled that a word in a statute will be given its everyday meaning unless Congress gives some indication that it intends the word to have a broader meaning.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer concurring opinion noted that the word “individual” is open to multiple interpretations and can mean natural persons, corporations, or other entities, making the word alone is insufficient to decide the case, and that only legislative history could make up for the interpretive inadequacies of considering language alone.