April 3, 2010 -- A federal court this week ordered Iran to pay $1.3 billion to the victims of the 1983 United States Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, the latest in a series of enormous verdicts against rogue nations that the judge said may be providing false hopes to those who seek justice.
"The Court seeks to send the strongest possible message that Iran's support of terrorism against citizens of the United States absolutely will not be tolerated by the courts of this nation," U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth wrote in a searing, and at times poignant, opinion published Wednesday.
This is the second huge judgment for victims of the bombing – another group was awarded more than $2.6 billion in 2007. But for now, the money appears to be mirage, or, as Lamberth described it in an earlier opinion related to the latest case, "a meaningless charade."
Congress first changed the law in 1996 to allow American victims to sue foreign sponsors of terror attacks. Lawmakers have returned to the issue several times to try and make it easier for victims to find justice. And in some instances, victims have collected large payments. Plaintiffs in a series of cases brought against Libya, for example, eventually recovered money as part of the U.S. agreement to normalize relations with Libya.
But by Lamberth's estimate, cases against Iran alone had already piled up more than $9 billion in unpaid judgments before the latest opinion issued this week. In an unorthodox 191-page opinion late last year, he called on President Obama and Congress to find a new approach. Those trying to compel Iran to pay by bringing new lawsuits face a "long road ahead," he wrote.
"This meaningless charade … has gone on far too long," he wrote. "It is high time for our political leaders to consider the flaws of this private litigation experience and address the deeper political problems that this court has no authority to resolve."
Lawyers in those cases believe the promise of a payday is not as far off as Lamberth suggests.
"We harbor a patient belief that there will be adequate assets located and attached to enforce this judgment, as well as the other outstanding judgments," said Joseph Peter Drennan, an Alexandria attorney involved in the case. "Iran is a large and wealthy country and garners tens of billions of dollars a year from exporting petroleum. Iran can pay these judgments, and pay them it must if it has any desire to rejoin the family of nations."
Lawyers in this and other cases have been relentless in their pursuit of Iranian assets that remain squirreled away within the United States. One promising sign that the Beirut victims may succeed in collecting came in December, when the Wall Street Journal reported that a federal court secretly froze more than $2 billion allegedly held on behalf of Iran in Citigroup Inc. accounts.
Court records from the case are under seal, but if the assets are turned over to the plaintiffs, the Journal reported that it would mark the largest American seizure of Iranian assets since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Thomas Fortune Fay, another Washington lawyer who represents the Beirut bombing victims, said Friday that while he is not permitted to discuss the status of the funds held by Citibank, "I don't have any information to contradict what was in that article."
If the lawyers were able to get their hands on those funds, the latest billion-dollar judgment would be divided among the roughly 100 plaintiffs who brought suit -- survivors, relatives, and descendants of those killed in the gruesome suicide bombing that killed 241 American servicemen in what was at the time the most deadly foreign-sponsored terror attack targeting Americans. Some victims, such as lead plaintiff Terance J. Valore, were singled out by the judge for additional compensation because of what they went through.
"Mr. Valore suffered particularly horrendous physical injuries, in both number and severity," the judge wrote. "Immediately after the blast, Mr. Valore lost consciousness for about 30 seconds. He regained consciousness to find his skin hanging from his body; severe hole-like wounds passing through his chest; pieces of metal, concrete, and glass embedded in his body; and his leg split open. Mr. Valore had been in the middle of the fireball. His clothes had been blown off, all of hair the on his body had been burned off, and burns covered 90% of his body."
In awarding the $1.3 billion to Valore and others Wednesday, Lamberth quoted from Iranian poet Simin Behbahani, who has implored her nation to "Stop this screaming, mayhem, and bloodshed. Stop doing what makes God's creatures mourn with tears."
Lamberth concludes: " The Court sincerely hopes that the compensatory damages awarded today help to alleviate plaintiffs' physical, emotional, and financial injury and that the punitive damages also awarded inspire Iran to heed Ms. Behbahani's words."