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.