Marine veteran, once imprisoned in Iran, sues US for withholding victim funds
By NIRAJ WARIKOO | Detroit Free Press | Published: November 20, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — A Flint, Michigan, man who was imprisoned and abused by Iranian authorities on accusations he was a spy has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government, alleging it has failed to compensate him after agreeing he was eligible to receive millions of dollars.
Amir Hekmati, 36, a Marine veteran, sued the U.S. on Monday, saying that the Department of Justice's United States Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund has still not paid him despite repeated requests. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington by lead counsel Scott Gilbert.
According to the lawsuit, the fund for victims of terrorism told Hekmati almost two years ago that he was eligible to receive $20 million stemming from his time in an Iranian prison for more than four years from 2011 to 2016. At one point, Hekmati was sentenced to death after being accused of being a spy; he was released in January 2016 as part of a prisoner exchange with the U.S. tied to the Iranian nuclear deal.
In December, the fund notified Hekmati he was authorized to get an initial payment of his $20 million in compensation worth $890,100. But the money never came, despite repeated inquiries by Hekmati's attorneys, the lawsuit said.
“It is an utter disgrace that the United States Department of Justice has effectively blocked payment to Amir Hekmati, a former Marine, who was brutally tortured and falsely imprisoned in Iran for nearly five years,” Scott Gilbert, lead counsel for Hekmati, said in a statement. “Sgt. Hekmati served his country bravely in combat, and he endured years of unimaginable physical and emotional anguish in the worst of Iranian prisons. ... Now, trying simply to get on with his life back home, he’s being victimized all over again, this time by his own country.”
A spokesman for the Department of Justice declined comment.
"The Fund sent a letter to Mr. Hekmati confirming the amount of his first distribution and stating that payment would begin in January 2019 nearly a year ago," the lawsuit said. "The Fund paid all eligible claimants except Mr. Hekmati nine months ago."
On Oct. 11, an attorney for Hekmati sent a letter to the Department of Justice saying they would sue if they didn't get a payment in 15 days. Thirteen days later, the Justice Department responded by saying it would suspend Hekmati's claim and send it back for reconsideration, Hekmati's attorneys said.
The U.S. government's fund for state-sponsored terrorism victims has paid out billions of dollars to victims. It made payments to all other of the 5,000-plus victims eligible, according to Gilbert.
U.S. House Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, who has advocated for Hekmati for years, expressed support for his attempts to get compensated.
“Marine veteran Amir Hekmati spent nearly five years as a political prisoner in Iran," Kildee said in a statement to the Free Press. "Thus, I am committed to supporting him as he works to move on from this horrible experience. And I call on the Justice Department to provide all appropriate information to Amir and his attorney regarding the status of these payments."
Hekmati was traveling to Iran to visit his grandmother and other relatives when he was arrested in Iran in 2011. He was born in the U.S. to immigrants from Iran who fled after the 1979 Islamic revolution. They moved to Michigan after Hekmati's father became a professor at Mott Community College.
He was charged with espionage, an allegation his family and the U.S. government have said was baseless. Hekmati was convicted and sentenced to life in prison; his term was later reduced, before he was freed in 2016.
Hekmati has said he was abused while in prison, including being beaten.
"Hekmati also suffered extreme and continuous psychological torture," said the lawsuit. "He was placed in solitary confinement for 17 months ... permitted to leave his cell for only 20 minutes every three days, and even then, it was only to take a freezing cold shower. He was interrogated regularly."
Congress established the fund for American terrorism victims in 2015. It has been used to compensate many people, including victims of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 when Americans were seized by angry students forty years ago this month.
Other prisoners released along with Hekmati in 2016 were Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and Christian pastor Saeed Abedini.
In October 2017, a federal judge in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. said Iran had to pay Hekmati $63.5 million for his suffering in Iranian custody.