THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Adding insult to infamy

26 years after attack on Marine barracks in Beirut, families stymied again in bid for restitution

Christine Devlin displayed a photo of her son Michael, who was killed in a 1983 terrorist bombing in Beirut. Below, US Marines pulled survivors from the rubble. Christine Devlin displayed a photo of her son Michael, who was killed in a 1983 terrorist bombing in Beirut. Below, US Marines pulled survivors from the rubble. (John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff)
By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / November 14, 2009

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On Veterans Day, Christine Devlin stood in the cold in Westwood for the unveiling of a new memorial to local soldiers lost overseas, including her son Michael, one of the 241 servicemen killed in the bombing of the US Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983.

Devlin is among 30 Massachusetts relatives of victims of the Beirut attack who have been fighting for more than a decade to get compensation for what many consider the first major terrorist attack against the United States. After a federal judge ruled in 2007 that Iran was liable for $2.65 billion in damages to be shared by 150 families seeking restitution, they believed they were on the cusp of victory.

But now, the Obama administration is going to court to try to block payments from Iranian assets that the families’ lawyers want seized, contending that it would jeopardize sensitive negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program and establish a potentially damaging precedent.

In a little-noticed filing in federal court, the Justice Department is arguing that giving the money to the victims “can have significant, detrimental impact on our foreign relations, as well as the reciprocal treatment of the United States and its extensive overseas property holdings.’’

The Obama administration’s position is a blow to those like Devlin, who is still waiting for some measure of justice for her son, who was 21 when Hezbollah terrorists rammed a suicide truck bomb into the peacekeepers’ headquarters.

“It is offensive that our government - the government that [the Marines] were fighting for, who sent them there - are against us collecting from Iran,’’ Devlin said in an interview this week. “I felt justice was going to be served, but so far it hasn’t.’’

“We can’t go on with our lives,’’ said Marlys Lemnah, 62, of St. Albans, Vt., whose husband, Richard, a Marine sergeant nearing his 20-year retirement, was killed in Beirut. “It’s not about the money. We need something tangible: responsibility and accountability. We will fight until we have no more fight left.’’

The lawsuit, specialists say, also demonstrates the enormous difficulty for terrorism victims in general to collect damages. Despite a host of court rulings in its favor and legislation passed by Congress to make it possible to sue foreign governments that sponsor terrorism, the executive branch has long resisted such payments, arguing that seizing the assets of another country could restrict the president’s ability to conduct diplomacy. There are also significant legal disagreements over what kind of assets can be seized.

“Two branches are supporting [the families’] position and the executive branch is directly trying to undermine them,’’ said David J. Strachman, a Providence lawyer who has represented numerous families in terrorism cases involving Iran, but is not involved in this case.

Even the courts have grown frustrated. Royce C. Lamberth, chief judge of the US District Court in Washington who ruled in favor of the Beirut families, wrote in a Sept. 30 opinion that “these case have consumed substantial judicial resources while achieving few tangible results for the victims.’’

Over the years, Iran, which since 1984 has been designated a state sponsor of terrorism by the US government, has been found liable for nearly $10 billion in damages for attacks on Americans attributed to the Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian terror groups including Hamas and Islamic Jihad that the United States says are financed and trained by Iran.

But in only a few cases have any Iranian funds been seized as compensation for the victims or their families - most notably from Iranian funds held by the US government before the two countries severed diplomatic relations in 1979.

Lawyers representing the Beirut families first went to court seeking damages in 2001, after Congress passed a law giving US courts jurisdiction over such lawsuits against nations that sponsor international terrorism.

Building the case took four years of depositions from victims’ relatives, US government officials, and even a former Hezbollah member, amounting to 30,000 pages of testimony, according to Thomas F. Fay, one of the lawyers representing the families.

The families’ first victory came in 2003 when the US District Court in Washington found that Iran’s Ministry of Information and Security helped plan and facilitate the Oct. 23, 1983, attack. Then, two years ago, the same court ruled the Iranian government was liable for the $2.65 billion in damages.

The families’ legal advisers and the Obama administration - like the Bush administration before it - disagree on how many Iranian assets could be legally seized in the case.

The Treasury Department estimates there is only $45 million in seizable Iranian assets in the United States and has argued in court that some of the property that the families’ lawyers have sought is outside the United States and cannot be legally seized.

“The total amount of judgments against terrorist states for exceeds the assets of debtor states known to exist within the jurisdiction of US courts,’’ an analysis published by the Congressional Research Service, which advises lawmakers, concluded last year.

But Fay maintains that he has identified as much as $2 billion worth of seizable Iranian assets, including securities held in a vault in New York that he said a senior US official has testified under oath is owned by Iran. Another source of funds he previously identified is an office tower in Manhattan, estimated to be worth $1 billion, that was among properties seized Thursday by federal prosecutors who assert they are owned by a foundation that is a front for the Iranian government.

“It is clear from the seizures of Iranian assets in New York and elsewhere that the government of Iran does indeed have significant tangible financial holdings in the United States,’’ Fay said yesterday.

Still, a deeper disagreement revolves around the possible consequences of seizing the assets of a foreign state and handing them over to victims of terrorism.

Fay and other lawyers who have represented terrorism victims assert that doing so would strengthen the government’s leverage with nations like Iran because there would be a clear price to pay for supporting terrorism.

The Justice Department declined to comment further on the administration’s position, but as the congressional analysis stated, “The issue has pitted the compensation of victims of terrorism against US foreign policy goals and some business interests.’’

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com