The United States Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a law on the books since 1991 precludes organizations, both political and corporate, from sued for torture or murder outside of the U.S.

In a unanimous ruling on Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority (PDF), Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that the careful text of the Torture Victims Protection Act of 1991, the way it is written "convinces us that Congress did not extend liability to organizations, sovereign or not."

She added: "There are no doubt valid arguments for such an extension. But Congress has seen fit to proceed in more modest steps in the Act, and it is not the province of this branch to do otherwise."

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the family of Azzam Rahim, a Palestinian man with U.S. citizenship who was was allegedly tortured and killed by Palestinian officials some time after his arrest in 1995. The Palestinian Authority has denied the charge.

The family's lawsuit has been batted around in the appeals process for so long because it does not mention a specific individual's name, instead targeting the Palestinian Liberation Organization in general. Added: The law does not specifically define "individual," but it uses the word 13 times -- a tripping point that led Justices to cite legal terminology in their ruling.

Ultimately, "We decline to read 'individual' so unnaturally," Sotomayor wrote. "The ordinary meaning of the word, fortified by its statutory context, persuades us that the Act authorizes suit against natural persons alone."

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