October 17, 2023
November 18, 2019
ByNew York Times
When a Marine veteran from Michigan was freed by Iran in 2016, an ordeal of imprisonment, torture and deprivation that had lasted almost four and a half years came to an end. Amir Hekmati was welcomed home as a hero.
But his battle with the government in Tehran has given way to a struggle against another country — his own.
On Monday, Mr. Hekmati, 36, sued the United States government over its failure to pay any of the compensation promised to him from a special fund for American citizens who are considered victims of state-sponsored terrorism.
Known as the United States Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund, it was created by Congress in 2015 and has distributed more than $2 billion to thousands of claimants, including Americans held during the 1979-81 Tehran hostage crisis, along with their spouses and children.
Administered by the Justice Department, the fund determined nearly two years ago that Mr. Hekmati was eligible for $20 million in compensation, and informed him last December that the first installment, $839,100.35, would be paid in January — ten months ago.
While others deemed eligible got their distributions, Mr. Hekmati mysteriously did not, despite inquiries by his lawyer and congressional representatives.
“The Fund has offered no explanation for its failure to issue Mr. Hekmati’s distribution,” said the lawsuit, filed at the United States Court of Federal Claims in Washington. “Repeated requests by Mr. Hekmati, his legal counsel and members of Congress over the last year for information regarding the timing and status of his distribution have gone unanswered.”
Scott Gilbert, Mr. Hekmati’s lawyer, said he had informed the fund on Oct. 11 that he would take legal action if the money was not paid. Later, he received a letter from Deborah L. Connor, an assistant attorney general who serves as special master of the fund, informing him that it wanted to reconsider whether Mr. Hekmati was eligible. No explanation was given.
“This is blatant retaliation,” Mr. Gilbert said in a telephone interview. He argued that the fund’s determinations of eligibility “are absolutely final” and reconsiderations are not permissible.
As to why the Justice Department delayed the payment and now appears to be questioning whether it should be paid at all, Mr. Gilbert said: “I have no earthly idea. We’ve racked our brains for what it could be.”
Ms. Connor said in the letter that the department intended to temporarily reappoint Kenneth R. Feinberg, a Washington lawyer and well-known arbitration expert who was the fund’s original special master and who made the original determination that Mr. Hekmati deserved the compensation, to re-evaluate whether he was eligible.
Mr. Feinberg declined to comment and referred inquiries to Peter A. Carr, a Justice Department spokesman. Mr. Carr did not immediately respond to telephone and email messages seeking comment.
An American of Iranian descent, Mr. Hekmati was born in Flagstaff, Ariz., and grew up in Flint, Mich., son of a microbiology professor and an accountant who had emigrated from Iran. He served in the Marines from 2001 to 2005, doing two tours in Iraq.
He got his bachelor’s degree in economics at the University of Michigan and was about to start his master’s there in 2011, but decided first to travel to Iran to visit his grandmother, whom he had never met. Iranian officials detained him two days before he was to return home and accused him of espionage, which he has consistently denied.
Mr. Hekmati was among a group of Americans released by the Iranian authorities in a prisoner swap when the now-endangered nuclear agreement between Iran and major powers took effect in January 2016. He had been imprisoned longer than any of the others and at one point had been threatened with execution.
In letters relayed by his family and supporters at home while he was held in Tehran’s Evin Prison, Mr. Hekmati accused the Iranian authorities of using him as a political pawn based on bogus charges. He also accused them of wanton abuse that included whipping his feet, prolonged solitary confinement, denial of medical care and severe malnutrition.
In May, 2016 Mr. Hekmati sued the government of Iran in Federal District Court in Washington, arguing that his detention and treatment constituted hostage-taking and torture. He was awarded nearly $63.5 million in a default judgment — money that Iran never intended to pay — but the case outcome helped him qualify for money from the victims fund.
Dan Kildee, a Democratic congressman from Flint who came to know Mr. Hekmati’s family during his incarceration and has kept in touch with Mr. Hekmati since his return, has been among the outspoken advocates who have questioned the Justice Department’s behavior toward him in recent months.
“It’s been obviously a source of frustration,” Mr. Kildee, the House majority deputy whip, said in a phone interview.
“Amir has been through hell. He spent almost five years in prison in Iran. If there’s some reason, some issue, just tell Amir and his attorneys what it is,” Mr. Kildee said. “If there is a legitimate issue, there’s no excuse for the Justice Department being so obtuse. Just tell us what’s going on.”
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