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SURETTE v. ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN

November 1, 2002

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA BEVERLY SURETTE, PLAINTIFF,
V.
THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN, ET AL. DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Paul L. Friedman, District Judge.

OPINION

On March 16, 1984, William Buckley, an American citizen and high-ranking agent of the Central Intelligence Agency, was kidnaped from the garage of his apartment building in Beirut, Lebanon. Buckley was held captive for the next 444 days — over fourteen months — during which he was interrogated, tortured and denied medical care, ultimately causing his death from severe illness on June 3, 1985. Plaintiff Beverly Surette, Buckley's longtime companion, brings this action on behalf of William Buckley's estate, herself and Buckley's sister, Maureen Moroney. She seeks compensatory and punitive damages for Buckley's abduction, torture and wrongful death and for loss of solatium. Defendants are the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps ("RGC") and the Iranian Ministry of Information and Security ("MOIS"), all of which are alleged to be responsible for funding and directing these terrorist acts against William Buckley.*fn1

The Court has jurisdiction over this case under 28 U.S.C. § 1330(b) and pursuant to a 1996 amendment to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1602, et seq. ("FSIA"), which provides an exception to the general rule of sovereign immunity for foreign states, authorizing claims based on "personal injury or death that was caused by an act of torture, extrajudicial killing, aircraft sabotage, hostage taking, or the provision of material support or resources . . . for such an act if such act or provision of material support is engaged in by an official, employee, or agent of such foreign state while acting within the scope of his or her office, employment or agency. . . ." 28 U.S.C. § 1605(a)(7) (emphasis added).

Plaintiff effected service on defendants on September 24, 2001 through diplomatic channels, in accordance with the procedures of the FSIA. See 28 U.S.C. § 1608(a)(4); Notice of Service of Process, November 13, 2001. Following defendants' failure to appear, the Clerk of the Court entered default against defendants on December 5, 2001 pursuant to Rule 55(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Notwithstanding the Clerk's entry of default, the Court cannot enter default judgment against a foreign state or its agencies or instrumentalities unless a plaintiff "establishes his claim or right to relief by evidence satisfactory to the court." 28 U.S.C. § 1608(e). Accordingly, the Court held an ex parte evidentiary hearing — effectively a trial — on September 3 and 4, 2002, at which plaintiff presented evidence on the merits of her claim. The following witnesses testified at trial: plaintiff Beverly Surette, administrator of William Buckley's estate and his longtime companion; Maureen Moroney, Buckley's sister; Chip Beck, a retired CIA officer and long-time friend and co-worker of Buckley's; David Jacobsen (by videotape), who was held hostage with Buckley; Dr. Patrick Clawson, Deputy Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an expert on Iranian sponsorship of terrorism; Dr. Bruce Tefft, a retired CIA officer and a consultant on terrorism; Norman Gardner, a former CIA agent, an investigator for the House Appropriations Committee and a long-time acquaintance and colleague of Buckley's; Dr. Richard Froede (by videotape), the medical examiner who conducted an autopsy of Buckley's remains; and John Devlin, a CPA, who performed a lost income analysis.

I. FINDINGS OF FACT

A. Buckley's Abduction, Torture and Death

In early 1984, William Buckley was serving as station chief for the Central Intelligence Agency in Beirut, Lebanon. As the highest-ranking CIA official in Beirut — his position an "open secret" within the official Lebanese government and among violent religious factions vying for power — Buckley faced enormous risk to his life and safety every day. At the time, Beirut was one of the most violently turbulent places in the world, characterized by constant danger in many forms — ambushes, terrorist attacks, artillery barrages, snipers, kidnapers, assassins and traitors. In the words of Chip Beck, a longtime friend and fellow CIA agent who worked with Buckley in Lebanon just before his kidnaping, life in Beirut in 1984 was "sheer insanity."

On March 16, several men seized William Buckley in the underground garage of his apartment and pushed him into a van. The details of what followed are unknown, since Buckley himself did not live to tell the story. Based on the testimony of David Jacobsen, however, another American kidnaped in Beirut in May 1985 and held captive with Buckley, it is certain that Buckley's ordeal was horrific. Buckley and other hostages were confined for months in a filthy room where they were chained to the floor almost all hours of the day, blindfolded and wearing little clothing. The hostages were directed not to talk to each other. Their captors gave them scant food and water and their diet was so poor that it induced painful stomach cramps and diarrhea. With chains holding them immobile and guards reluctant to release them even for trips to the bathroom, the hostages suffered excruciating pain. Jacobsen testified that at some point, each of the hostages lost control of his bowels and was forced to defecate on himself, enduring a dehumanizing and humiliating experience.

In addition to these inhumane living conditions, Buckley endured the constant sense of terror and uncertainty that looms over every hostage. "We lived with death 24 hours a day," Jacobsen testified, recounting how their captors would charge into the room carrying weapons, force the hostages to line up against the wall and vow to kill them if anyone tried to rescue them. At other times, Buckley's captors would torment the hostages with promises that they were about to be released — a practice that further demoralized the hostages and chipped away at their sanity.

Beverly Surette and others testified that videotapes taken by Buckley's captors and later released to the United States showed Buckley with cuts and bruises on his face from being beaten; his nose had been "smashed over on the side of his face." See Plaintiff's Exhibit 15 (photograph of Buckley while in captivity corroborating this testimony). In addition, Buckley may have been subjected to even more gruesome abuse. While Buckley's remains, recovered years after his death, were far too decomposed to reveal much about his treatment in captivity, his remains were found with a catheter and a set of intravenous tubes with a butterfly valve — instruments that might have been used for torture. Both the medical examiner that performed Buckley's autopsy and Dr. Bruce Tefft, a retired CIA officer of 21 years, testified that the catheter could have been used to cause extreme pain. Dr. Froede, the medical examiner, graphically explained how that could be done, and Dr. Tefft testified that such catheters are known to have been used as interrogation devices and instruments of torture by violent organizations, such as the KGB of the former Soviet Union. In addition, David Jacobsen testified that Buckley was given no medical care prior to his death, making it unlikely that the catheter was used for treatment purposes.

Under these conditions, Buckley's health deteriorated severely. Known throughout his life as a remarkably strong and healthy man, Buckley grew weak and severely ill in captivity. In the videotapes taken of him while a hostage, Buckley looked totally unlike himself — witnesses testified that one video showed Buckley slumped in a chair and appearing frail, hollow and vacant, seemingly unaware of what was happening or even where he was. David Jacobsen personally witnessed Buckley's desperate condition in captivity and testified that Buckley was gravely ill by the time Jacobsen joined him in captivity in May of 1985, fourteen months after Buckley's kidnaping. In the small apartment where Jacobsen, Buckley and other hostages were held, Jacobsen could not see Buckley because he was blindfolded, but could hear him through the plywood partitions that separated them. Jacobsen was able to identify Buckley as one of the other hostages because Jacobsen had been aware of other kidnapings in Beirut prior to his own, including Buckley's; when he heard the captors refer to another hostage as "William," Jacobsen identified that hostage as Buckley. Jacobsen testified that when he heard Buckley suffering, he knew that Buckley was dying.

William Buckley died in captivity on June 3, 1985. Jacobsen was able to identify the precise date of Buckley's death because, he testified, the first thing a hostage learns is to keep track of the date, since this is the hostage's only link to reality, "your lifeline to sanity." On the day he died, Buckley had dry heaves and a steady cough. Jacobsen recalled that Buckley must have been running a high fever because he became delusional, remarking to another hostage as he was led past: "I think I'll have my hotcakes now, with blueberry syrup." Although the captors knew of Buckley's grave condition and even asked Jacobsen what they might do to help him, they did not act on Jacobsen's suggestions to give Buckley lots of water and antibiotics or to bathe him in cool water to lower his temperature. Instead, the captors did nothing. Later that night, Jacobsen heard a low gurgling noise from Buckley that he described as "the death rattles." Finally, Jacobsen heard a "tap" through the partition, followed by silence. Though he could not be sure, Jacobsen understood the "tap" to be a gun fired with a silencer, and when he later was moved into Buckley's area of the room, Jacobsen saw a bullet hole in the wall 12 to 24 inches above the floor.

Based on the extensive evidence that Buckley was unlawfully abducted and held for over fourteen months in cruel, inhumane conditions, denied sufficient food and water, subjected to constant and deliberate demoralization, physically beaten, possibly subjected to gruesome physical torture, and denied essential medical treatment, the Court concludes that Buckley was tortured within the meaning of the FSIA. See Daliberti v. Republic of Iraq, 146 F. Supp.2d 19, 25 (D.D.C. 2001) (finding that hostages had been tortured within the meaning of the FSIA where captors had held them at gunpoint, threatened to injure them if they did not confess, pointed loaded guns at them, denied them medical treatment, and incarcerated them in a room with no bed, window, light, electricity, water, toilet or adequate access to sanitary facilities); Jenco v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 154 F. Supp.2d 27, 32 (D.D.C. 2001) (finding that deprivation of adequate food, light, toilet facilities and medical care for 564 days amounted to torture within the meaning of Section 1605(a)(7)).*fn2 Furthermore, the Court finds that these conditions caused and exacerbated Buckley's severe illness and, ultimately, caused his death.

B. The Role of Iran, the RGC and the MOIS

Responsibility for Buckley's kidnaping was claimed by a group known as "Islamic Jihad," a recognized alias of "Hizballah," which is a terrorist organization based in Lebanon and known to be dependent on the resources, training and direction of Iran, the MOIS and the RGC. See Plaintiff's Exhibit 6, Terrorist Group Profiles, United States Department of State ("State Dep't.") at 15 (November 1988).*fn3 The connection between Hizballah and Iran is documented in numerous United States government reports and was confirmed by plaintiff's experts at the evidentiary hearing. Dr. Patrick Clawson, Deputy Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a long-time analyst of Iran and its policies, stated that "there is no question that Hizballah was directed, formed, organized and funded by the Iranian government." Dr. Bruce Tefft testified that Iran established Hizballah and trained its members in Lebanon.

At the time of Buckley's kidnaping Hizballah was under the immediate supervision of the Iranian government, and the approval process for Hizballah operations was extremely tight. Dr. Clawson testified that Hizballah's reliance on Iran was so complete that Hizballah would not and could not have kidnaped and abused Buckley without direction from Iran. Moreover, both Dr. Clawson and Dr. Tefft noted that the United States negotiated directly with Iran to seek the release of Buckley and other hostages, not with Hizballah or any other organization. Norman Gardner, a former CIA officer serving in the Office of Correctional Affairs when Buckley was kidnaped, testified that when videotapes of Buckley in captivity were released to the United States, they came from Iran. In addition, David Jacobsen testified that a man named Ali, who had "absolute authority" over the guards where Jacobsen and Buckley were held, was Iranian: "There is no doubt Ali was the Iranian representative to the kidnaping group." Based on all of this evidence, the Court finds that Iran was responsible for what happened to Buckley.

Two specific agencies of the state of Iran — the Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Ministry of Information and Security — also clearly played a role in Buckley's abduction, torture and death. Dr. Clawson testified that the RGC, formed in 1979 during the Iranian Revolution and charged with promoting and protecting the interests of the Islamic Republic, maintains a strong military force in Lebanon and is responsible for training and supplying weapons to Hizballah for terrorist operations. The central role of the RGC in supporting and directing Hizballah terrorism is described in numerous reports by the State Department and is understood to be a crucial element of Iran's mission to export the Islamic revolution and drive Western influence out of the Middle East. See Patterns of Global Terrorism 1986 at 22; Plaintiff's Exhibit 7, Iran's Use of International Terrorism, State Dep't. at 1 (October 1987); see also Higgins v. Islamic Republic of Iran, Civ. No. 99-0377, 2000 WL 33674311, *7 (D.D.C. 2000).

The Iranian Ministry of Information and Security also is well known in its support of Hizballah, as Dr. Clawson confirmed in his testimony. Essentially the continuation of the secret police force under the Shah (SAVAK), the MOIS was renamed after the revolution but continued as a formal part of the new government to oversee massive spy operations both internally and abroad. See Global Patterns of Terrorism 1986 at 22. Continuing through the present, the MOIS and the RGC work in conjunction to oversee and direct terrorist activities throughout the Middle East, including the operations of Hizballah in Lebanon. Around the time that Buckley was kidnaped, Dr. Clawson testified, Iran provided between ...


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