When Justice for Terror Victims Is Hostage to Politics

Despite his courtroom ‘vindication’, Stephen Flatow discovers that a decade of litigation has yet to deliver justice for the death of his daughter Alisa.

Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky
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A man walks past the French bank BNP Paribas headquarters in Paris, Feb. 5, 2013.
A man walks past the French bank BNP Paribas headquarters in Paris, Feb. 5, 2013.Credit: AP
Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky

The chain of events that led to the guilty plea to criminal charges by the big French bank BNP Paribas started, the New York Times reported last week, with the killing of Alisa Flatow in an Iranian-backed bus bombing in 1995. The bank now faces record fines of $8.9 billion. But the astonishing case suggests that litigation in the courts is no way to fight a war.

Alisa, who lived in New Jersey and was a student at Brandeis, was among those who perished in the bombing of a bus at Kfar Darom. Her father, Stephen, a lawyer in New Jersey, has been seeking to redeem the blood of his daughter all the years since then. Yet for all the victories he has had, the Iranians have yet to pay and there has been no U.S. military response to the killing of its citizen.

The Clinton administration shrank from acting militarily, even though its own State Department figured out that Iran had a role in the attack in which Alisa perished. But Congress, galled by the 1988 bombing of Pam Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, began to provide ways for private Americans individuals to attack terrorist states in court.

In 1996, it passed a law called the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which stripped from terrorist states sovereign immunity from certain legal actions. Then Congress passed what became known as the Flatow amendment, allowing civil suits for punitive damages from terrorist states. In 1997, Flatow used the law to sue Iran.

The mullahs didn’t deign to show up in court or even answer his charges. So — by default — Flatow won a judgment of $247 million. The judge who handed down the judgment, Royce Lamberth, clearly wanted to make a point. But that turned out to be the easy part. When it came time for Flatow to collect, an incredible thing happened. The Clinton administration went into court and took the side of Iran against Alisa.

It had panicked when Flatow, aiming to enforce the judgment he’d won, sought to claim a building that the Iran ambassador had used as a residence in Washington. Enforcing the judgment, the Clinton administration claimed, would wreak diplomatic havoc. Eventually, the U.S. government paid Flatow and a number of other terror victims a small settlement out of taxpayer funds. In exchange, the U.S. government, at least in theory, will eventually get to settle up with Iran.

Flatow’s hunt for Iranian properties is what set in motion the events that exposed BNP. One target, identified by Flatow in the 1990s, was an Iranian foundation that owned part of a building at 650 Fifth Avenue. At first the U.S. government insisted the Alavi Foundation was not an Iranian government asset. But Flatow’s suit, the New York Times reported, interested an analyst named Eitan Arusy in the office of the Manhattan district attorney, Robert Morgenthau. Arusy had previously been a soldier in the IDF.

Eventually state and federal authorities agreed that BNP and other banks were disguising financial transactions between Iran and the charitable foundation. So the Federal government ended up seizing the Manhattan office tower and the various authorities won the big guilty plea by BNP announced last week. The Times reports that the federal government is going to sell the building and distribute the proceeds to victims of terrorism.

“Vindicating” is the word the New York Times used to describe how Stephen Flatow viewed the BNP case and similar enforcement actions. When I talked with Stephen Flatow this week, he didn’t deny that. But, having covered him for 20 years, I would use the word subdued. Despite all that has happened, he noted, the Iranian building has yet to be sold or proceeds distributed.

“The fat lady hasn’t sung,” he told me. “And politics will have to rear its ugly head.”

Toward the end of Clinton’s presidency, Flatow reminded, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright suddenly lifted some of its sanctions against the Iranians. She opted to allow them to sell pistachio nuts, caviar and Persian carpets in America, and announced more trade could be possible if it stopped working on an A-bomb. She got nowhere.

Now the Obama administration is attempting a much larger détente with Tehran. It’s likely to have a similar result. In Israel three young men have been kidnapped and killed by Hamas, and President Obama is urging restraint. Come November, Alisa Flatow would have been 40. It’s a time to remember that for all the non-military means that have been used against Iran by Congress and the courts, her murder has so far cost the mullahs nothing.

Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun www.nysun.com. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.

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