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Another lurking issue has the potential to wipe out almost all lawsuits under the 1789 law. Rio Tinto has an appeal pending with the court that argues that the law never was intended to apply to conduct by a foreign government against its own citizens within its own borders. It is not clear whether the court will deal with that issue in the Nigeria case.

The federal government has warned about serious foreign policy concerns over the broad application of the Alien Tort Statute. Then-South African President Thabo Mbeki said a lower court ruling in the United States in the lawsuit concerning apartheid smacked of “judicial imperialism.”

In this case, however, the Obama administration is on the side of the Ogonis.

In a second case being argued Tuesday, the justices will consider whether the Torture Victims Protection Act of 1992 can be invoked only against individuals, not organizations or corporations.

The sons and widow of Azzam Rahim have filed a civil lawsuit against the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Palestinian-born Rahim was a naturalized U.S. citizen who was beaten and died in the custody of Palestinian intelligence officers in Jericho in 1995. Three officers were jailed for their role in the case, according to a State Department report.

But when Rahim’s relatives sought money damages for his death, the federal appeals court in Washington said they could not use the 1992 law to go after the Palestinian organizations. The law may be applied only to “natural persons,” the appeals court said.

Some supporters of the lawsuits have drawn a link to the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case, which said corporations have the same rights as people to speak and spend freely to influence elections.

But if the court sides with businesses in these cases, it would be saying “corporations are not persons for the purpose of enforcing human rights violations. It’s really a weird paradox,” said Peter Weiss, vice president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and the first lawyer to win an appeals court ruling backing the use of the Alien Tort Statute to sue over human rights violations.