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The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) makes it difficult to sue foreign governments in U.S. courts for crimes committed against American citizens, including murder and torture. The U.S. government has frequently cited the FSIA in opposing lawsuits against foreign regimes, saying it would open the door to similar cases against American government agencies, like potential lawsuits against the CIA for renditions.
In one high profile case, Congress in the mid-1990s granted an exemption from the FSIA to two Americans who had been tortured by Saudi Arabian security agents. The Clinton White House stepped in at the last minute and reversed the exemption.
The Saudi case prompted a mild uproar, and Congress soon amended the FSIA so as to allow lawsuits against countries listed by the State Department as being sponsors of terrorism. In a curious twist, the Bush Administration is currently siding with Iran, which it has made Public Enemy No. 1, in a case involving a man allegedly killed by Iranian agents.
The case involves Cyrus Elahi, a U.S. citizen and Iranian dissident who in 1990 was shot and killed in front of his Paris apartment by Iranian operatives linked to Teheran. A decade later, Dariush Elahi, Cyrus’s brother, brought a wrongful death action against Iran in U.S. District Court in Washington. Elahi’s lawyer argued that the FSIA did not apply because the Iranian agents did not officially work for their government. The judge agreed and entered a default judgment against Iran for $11.7 million in compensatory damages and $300 million for punitive damages. (Note: the legal arguments in the case are complex and the summary included here is the “Cliff Notes” version. For those interested in the nuts and bolts, see “Plaintiff May Attach Iranian Default Judgment” from the website Embassy Law.)
Ever since then, Dariush Elahi has sought to collect the judgment, which Iran has rejected. In 2001, Elahi sought $2.8 million that the Iranian Ministry of Defense (MOD) had won in a lawsuit alleging breach of contract against an American weapons manufacturer, Cubic Defense Systems, in a deal that dated to the 1970s when the Shah was in power. Iran appealed but finally, last May, the 9th Circuit court ruled that Elahi had a right to the money, rejecting arguments submitted by the Justice Department on Iran’s behalf.
On Friday, the Supreme Court is supposed to decide whether it should review the case, as Iran has requested. Jonathan Mook, Elahi’s attorney, said that if the Supreme Court agrees to examine the case, the Bush Administration will almost surely file an amicus brief with the Court on Iran’s behalf, citing the FSIA. “The U.S. has fought tooth and nail and has done everything in its power to prevent collection” by Elahi, he said.
While the legal and political principles involved in the case are murky, the irony of the Bush Administration siding with Iran is indisputably striking.
This story was written with the help of Taimur Khan.
More from Ken Silverstein:
Perspective — October 23, 2013, 8:00 am
How pro-oil Louisiana politicians have shaped American environmental policy
Postcard — October 16, 2013, 8:00 am
A trip to one of the properties at issue in Louisiana’s oil-pollution lawsuits
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”