US court orders Iran to pay family of bomb victim
Iran Must Pay Family of Blast Victim, Court Says
$313 Million Awarded for 1997 Israel Bombing
By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2003; Page A04
The government of Iran must pay $313 million to the children of an American woman killed in a 1997 suicide bombing that tore apart a Jerusalem market where she had been shopping, a federal judge ruled yesterday.
The decision for the family of Leah Stern yielded the second-largest award to U.S. citizens in a series of lawsuits filed against countries accused of sponsoring terrorism.
The decision came the same day that the State Department pressed Congress to place a limit of a few hundred thousand dollars each on the compensation that victims of future terrorist attacks could receive.
In the Stern case, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth said he found the evidence "overwhelming" that Iran's military had trained the commanders of the Islamic Resistance Movement, also known as Hamas, and that these commanders arranged the 1997 market bombing. The judge said there is also clear evidence that Iran's government had paid millions of dollars to sponsor the group's attacks and the purchase of sophisticated bombing supplies.
What remains unclear is whether the four grown children of Stern, a native of New York, will be able to collect the $13 million in compensatory damages and $300 million in punitive damages that Lamberth said they deserve. Few victims have collected the largest part of their awards because a 2000 law aimed at helping them allows frozen Iranian assets to be used only for compensatory damages, not punitive ones.
Yesterday, the Bush administration presented a plan to give the victims of future terrorist attacks a capped benefit, such as the system used to compensate the survivors of police officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty.
The idea, offered by the State Department, is aimed at discouraging victims of future terrorist attacks from seeking relief in the courthouse. Such victims have won dozens of lawsuits against Iran, Iraq and other countries under a 1976 law aimed at making foreign governments that sponsor terrorism pay American survivors and bereaved families.
But the plaintiffs have had trouble collecting much of the money that courts awarded. Legislation signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000 was designed to free up money in the federal Treasury, and the U.S. government has distributed about $386 million to pay some of the judgments.
Stern's estate and children sued in 2000 and, as in other cases before hers, the Iranian government did not contest the suit. Damages were entered by default.
In a 1998 landmark decision, also issued by Lamberth, the family of Alisa Flatow, a New Jersey college student who was killed in a 1995 suicide bombing while studying in Israel, was awarded $247 million. And in 2000, journalist Terry Anderson was awarded $324 million over his 1985 kidnapping in Lebanon.
Stern was 69 and shopping in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on July 30, 1997, when a suicide bomber detonated explosives attached to his body. Medical experts testified that the blast ripped apart Stern's stomach and tore off parts of her face. She died at the scene.
Stern's children said through their attorney that they hope the damage award would stop Iran's support of terrorism.
"You don't get much more willful and intentional and tragic than terrorist murder," said the family's attorney, Jeffrey A. Miller. "This attack changed each of the children's lives forever. They each felt they lost the most important person in their lives."
Lamberth, who was appointed to the court by President Ronald Reagan, said in his 30-page ruling that Iran began to bankroll and train Hamas for terrorist missions in the early 1990s, and even rewarded the group after a suicide bombing.
"By bolstering Hamas, and turning it into a deadly and effective leader in the fight against Israel, Iran boosted popular support for the Islamic movement among Palestinians," Lamberth wrote. "Likewise . . . Iran was and is interested in using Hamas terrorist attacks to disrupt peace negotiations between Israel and the Arabs. "
Miller said the State Department proposal to limit compensation is bad policy that could send a dangerously encouraging message to governments intent on sponsoring terrorists.
"The terrorist state is going to think, 'Hey, I'm never going to have to pay for it,' " Miller said.
Lamberth said in his ruling that Congress gave the courts the job of punishing the sponsors of terrorism.
"Congress intended that the Courts impose a substantial financial cost on states which sponsor terrorist groups . . . both as a direct deterrent, and also as a disabling mechanism," he wrote. "The failure to impose punitive damages . . . might be construed by Iran as a capitulation by the United States in the struggle to prevent and punish terrorism."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.