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In one of the more unconventional terrorism court cases in the past few years, a federal judge last week ordered Iran to pay a combined $600 million in punitive damages to two American families that fell victim to state-sponsored terrorism abroad.
The orders, issued in two separate lawsuits, end years of litigation, but will be difficult to enforce.
Even so, the presiding judge took these cases as an opportunity to encourage Iran to oppose terrorism.
The underlying lawsuits stem from a 1995 bus-suicide bombing in the the Gaza strip during which Seth Haim, his father and his brother, were injured, and a similar incident in 2003, during which Alan Beer was killed in Jerusalem.
The Haims and Beer's family sued the Islamic Republic of Iran, arguing that, through the Iranian Ministry of Information, the country provided financial and material support to both Hamas and the Palestine Islamic Jihad--the groups responsible for the above attacks.
Historically, terrorism court cases in the U.S. have been focused on actual terrorists, but at times, they have also focused on nations that engage in state-sponsored terrorism.
Under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which limits the ability of U.S. courts to entertain suits against foreign nations, U.S. citizens can sue a foreign country if that country has provided aid to a terrorist organization.
However, the reason that this exception is rarely used is because judgments are difficult to enforce.
In order to collect the $600 million, the plaintiffs will need to find a country that both has access to Iranian assets and is willing to enforce a judgment ordered by a U.S. Court.
Iranian assets, if in the U.S., are periodic frozen, meaning that the judgment may even be difficult to enforce at home.
Even so, terrorism court cases that focus on state-sponsored terrorism serve an important purpose; they send a message that such behavior will not be tolerated by U.S. citizens and the American government.
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