U.S. D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals will rehear threshold arguments in defamation suit related to 1998 bombing of pharmaceutical plant in Sudan

August 6th, 2009 — 04:41 pm

By Haggai Carmon

In 1998, the United States under the Clinton Administration bombed the Sudanese pharmaceutical plant El-Shifa, after which they announced that the plant’s owner was collaborating with Osama bin Laden and working with terrorists to produce chemical weapons onsite and finance terrorist activity. The bombing met fierce criticism in the media, as many believed that the plant was a legitimate one, manufacturing critical medicines.

Salah El Din Ahmed Mohammed Idris, the plant owner, and the El-Shifa Pharmaceutical Industries Company sued the United States for defamation, claiming that the U.S. mislabeled them as terrorists because they needed justification for the bombing.

Originally dismissed by a federal district court on the basis of sovereign immunity, the same decision was arrived at on appeal by a D.C. Circuit court this March, but for different reasons. The Court said it lacked jurisdiction over the case because of the political questions involved. Under the political question doctrine, it could not review the claim because it was “inextricably intertwined” with a military decision made by the executive branch. “We have no trouble concluding that the President’s public justifications for discrete military action are always offered, in part at least, with strategic military, national security, or foreign policy objectives in mind. The making of such justifications is itself a policy decision that cannot be separated from the conduct of foreign relations and the exercise of the war power that it explains.”

Jones Day, the firm representing the plaintiffs, has been trying to revive the case, arguing that in this case (as in precedent), the political question doctrine should not be applicable because the Court is not being asked to review the executive military decision itself but rather the justification publicly offered following the act. (It was in fact, the second justification offered, as the Clinton Administration originally announced on the day of the bombing that the plant was state-run and financed by bin Laden to manufacture chemical weapons).

The act may be nonjusticiable, but the alleged defamation following the act can and should be reviewed by the Court, argues Jones Day. The political question doctrine, “has never prevented the courts from considering the legality of subsequent executive misconduct–such as the imprisonment, harassment, or slandering of unpopular groups, whistle-blowers or political opponents–simply because that conduct implicates justifications for the original military action.”

“Mr. Idris’s defamation claim does not require the courts to pass judgment on the Executive Branch’s foreign policies (i.e., the President’s decision to target al Qaeda-affiliated chemical weapons plants), its methods to implement those policies (i.e., the decision to shut down those plants through the use of unilateral military force rather than international diplomacy), or even the standard of care used in implementing those policies (i.e., the diligence of the information-gathering that led to the targeting of El-Shifa). Rather, the claim, which alleges knowing falsehoods or reckless disregard for the truth, simply requires a court to determine whether the officers who accused Mr. Idris of partnering with Osama bin Laden and providing financial support to Islamic Jihad and the National Islamic Front had enough information before [them] to come to th[at] conclusion.”

The Plaintiff further argues that not hearing the case based on the political question doctrine would set a dangerous precedent, as it would mean that any justification for a prior military, national-security or foreign-policy decision, whether making accusations against U.S. or foreign individuals or bodies, would not be justiciable.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has agreed to an en banc rehearing.

The only time a political question was raised in an Israeli court in connection with sovereign acts was in Aronov v. U.S. The plaintiffs sought damages as a result of alleged acts of the U.S. Embassy in Israel. They conceded that the acts themselves are protected by sovereign immunity, and therefore sought only consequential damages. I represented the United States and argued that since the act was political and protected by the political question doctrine, then there could be no remedy, because the Court cannot question the act of the Embassy. The Court adopted the U.S. arguments and dismissed the complaint on that and other grounds. No appeal was filed.

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In dismissed Iran Terror Case, Appeals Court allows for Additional Hearings Based on French Law

July 29th, 2009 — 11:32 am

By Haggai Carmon

In a D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the grandson of an assassinated Iranian general has been granted the right to have additional hearings on a foreign sovereignty case that was originally dismissed by a D.C. District Court judge in 2007. The Appeals Court judge has ruled that French law be consulted in determining damages.

Amir Reza Oveissi’s grandfather was murdered on a busy street in Paris in 1984. The terrorist group Hezbollah took responsibility for the killing, and the California-born Oveissi brought suit against Iran and its Ministry of Information and Security in 2003. He argued that the murder of his grandfather had been a terrorist act sponsored by the state of Iran, a country officially recognized in the U.S. as a state sponsor of terror. He sought and is still seeking damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress and wrongful death.

The case was originally dismissed because the grandfather – General Gholam Ali Oveissi – was a citizen of Iran and so he, if he had survived the attack, would not have been able to sue Iran under the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, as his grandson is now doing. Judge Royce Lamberth ruled that under California law, Oveissi could not proceed. Even though Judge Lamberth found Iran responsible for the elder Oveissi’s death, he did not believe that damages could be procured through the U.S. court system.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, however, ruled that because the plaintiff was living in France at the time of the shooting, it should be French law – not California law – that be applied when determining damages.

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Syria held liable for damages of terrorist act under U.S. FSIA

July 17th, 2009 — 09:02 am

By Haggai Carmon

When the 1996 amendment to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) made State Sponsors of Terror liable to civil suits in the U.S., there was a catch. Victims of terror couldn’t sue a country, they had to identify “an official, employee, or agent of a foreign state designated as a state sponsor of terrorism.”

In 2008, this catch was removed by the National Defense Authorization Act. Following its passage, victims of terrorist acts and their survivors would, in theory, be entitled to financial reparations from the state sponsor of terrorism itself.

In Gates v. Syrian Arab Republic, this amendment was put to the test and upheld by Judge Rosemary Collyer, who ruled on September 26, 2008 to award the plaintiffs more than $400 million in damages.

The plaintiffs in the case were the survivors of Jack Armstrong and Jack Hensley, who were both working as civilian contractors in Iraq when they were kidnapped and subsequently murdered by the Al Qaeda in Iran (AQI) leader Abu Musan al-Zarqawi. A video was made of their beheading, which was posted on the Internet.

The lawsuit found Syria responsible for providing not only financial support to AQI, but also a safe base from which to train, organize and penetrate/exit Iraq.

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