Paying for pain

Early on the afternoon of 18 April 1983, Anne Dammarell was eating lunch with a colleague in an office cafeteria when suddenly she felt intense heat envelop her body. She was blown out of the cafeteria and many feet from the building itself. At the same time, Rayford Byers was flung out of the fifth floor and Charles Light was blown through a cinder block wall within the same building. Miraculously, all three survived.

All are US citizens who were working at the US Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, when a massive truck bomb exploded and destroyed the multistorey building housing the embassy. Dozens of people were killed and injured. For Byers, Dammarell and Light, and others who survived the explosion, it was the beginning of months, if not years, of physical rehabilitation and coping with mental scars that for many are likely never to heal.

It was determined soon thereafter that Hizbollah (translated as the ‘Party of God’) had planned and executed the bombing of the embassy with the funding and assistance of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The bombing marked the start of a terrorist campaign in Lebanon that spanned the balance of the 1980s. Indeed, several months after the US embassy was bombed, similar attacks were made on Italian and French facilities in Lebanon as well as on the US Marine Corps barracks in Beirut. The barracks bombing killed 238 US Marines who had been sent to help establish and maintain peace in Lebanon.

These events were followed in early 1984 with the assassination of American University of Beirut president Malcolm Kerr and the first of dozens of terrorist kidnappings of Westerners. These kidnappings continued throughout the 1980s. Although some of those kidnapped were killed, most were held hostage for years before being released. As with the embassy bombing, Iran was behind the Kerr murder and the subsequent kidnappings, again through Hizbollah. Iran’s goal was to extract and exclude all Western influence in Lebanon and to install a radical theocratic government akin to that which had taken hold in Iran following its 1979 revolution.

A matter of accountability

In 1996, the US Congress enacted a statute that permits US citizen victims of terrorism to sue certain designated countries that have been deemed ‘state sponsors of terrorism’. Now, after years of effort, Byers, Dammarell, Light and many of their US citizen colleagues who were involved in the embassy bombing stand on the cusp of obtaining multimillion-dollar court judgments against Iran. Congress believed that, if individual citizens have the right to sue for monetary damages against foreign countries which sponsorterrorism, this would be a tool to fightterrorism where it would hurt: the foreign country’s money.

Congress also wanted to give individuals their own right to seek accountability – that is, a judicial determination of who is responsible for the terrorist act. While monetary compensation is something that victims of terrorism welcome, often their primary motivation for filing a lawsuit is to obtain accountability by way of a judicial finding that a foreign country caused an act of terror.

Certain restrictions apply to filing such suits. The claimants must be US citizens, only certain acts of terrorism are covered (such as aircraft sabotage, hostage taking, torture and “extrajudicial killings”) and claims can be filed only against countries that have been deemed by the US to be terrorism sponsors. Seven countries are on that list: Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria. In addition, claims must be filed within a 10-year period from the law’s enactment – a window of opportunity that is set to close in late April 2006.

The UK has no comparable statutory provision. If it did, and were it to act in a similar fashion as the US law, then the right to seek a judgment and compensation would be available to individuals such as Terry Waite and John McCarthy, UK citizens held hostage in Lebanon by the Hizbollah for extended periods in the 1980s.

Most of the cases filed in the US have been directed at Iran and Libya. Approximately 75 cases have been filed against Iran that have generally centred around Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism in Lebanon via the Hizbollah, and Iran’s similar sponsorship of Hamas for terrorist activities conducted by that group in Israel and Gaza. Only around 10 cases have been filed against Libya, the most notable of which involved claims by the families of the victims of the 1988 Pan Am 103 Lockerbie bombing. Although Libya settled that case, similar cases are pending against Libya for its bombing of French airliner UTA Flight 772 in September 1989 over Niger, as well as for other acts of torture and murder.

Compensation

Against this backdrop, Byers, Dammarell and Light are seeking compensation for the pain and suffering each of them experienced during and after the bombing. They filed a lawsuit under the 1996 act in 2001 and are joined in their claims by approximately 80 other individuals who were either injured in the bombing or are relatives of people killed in the bombing. Recently, a federal judge in Washington DC issued an opinion which found that the first 29 claimants in the case are entitled to receive $126m (£71.5m) in compensation from Iran. The claims of the remaining plaintiffs in the case, which should be decided in the near future, are likely to be of similar magnitude and could bring the total awarded for this Iran-sponsored bombing to something near $400m (£227.1m).

Receiving a final judgment against Iran in a US court, while a fundamental and important step in the process of seeking accountability and compensation, is certainly not the end of the process. Indeed, the often tricky question of how to collect that judgment against Iran, Libya or the other countries then arises.

This is not an insurmountable hurdle. In fact, the first 13 cases filed in the US against Iran, which included a case filed by well-known journalist Terry Anderson and his family, all resulted in multimillion-dollar judgments that have now been paid by the US as a credit against frozen Iranian funds held by the US Treasury. However, the balance of those funds has now been spent, so successful claimants must now look elsewhere to obtain payment.

One possibility is Italy, where an Italian court recently froze certain Iranian funds within Italy in connection with claims asserted by three US victims of Iranian terrorism. While the final outcome of those cases remains pending, it is clear that final judgments obtained in the US arising out of terrorist acts may soon be coming to European courts for enforcement.

For Byers, Dammarell, Light and their co-claimants, that step remains some months in the future. Nevertheless, they look forward to making Iran fully accountable for the terrible acts of 18 April 1983.

Michael Martinez is a partner at Crowell & Moring