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Mohammadi v. Islamic Republic of Iran

United States District Court, District Circuit

May 31, 2013

MANOUCHER MOHAMMADI, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

BERYL A. HOWELL, District Judge.

This is an action brought by and on behalf of four former Iranian nationals who were imprisoned, tortured, and/or killed in a Tehran prison. The action is brought against the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Sayid Ali Hoseyni Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (the "Revolutionary Guard"), under the Alien Tort Statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1350, the Torture Victim Protection Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1350 note, and the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 1602, et seq. The defendants have never appeared in or defended against this action, and the plaintiffs now seek default judgment for the damages caused by the imprisonment, torture, and extrajudicial killing perpetrated by the defendants. For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that it lacks jurisdiction to grant default judgment against any of the defendants.

I. BACKGROUND

As will be discussed further below, the Court held an evidentiary hearing in this matter on April 4, 2013, at which the plaintiffs presented witnesses, videotape, and other documentary evidence to support their claims. The factual background laid out below summarizes the relevant evidence that the plaintiffs have submitted, both at the evidentiary hearing and through the filing of affidavits and other documentary evidence.

A. Factual Background

The plaintiffs are three siblings of Akbar Mohammadi, who was tortured and killed while in Iranian custody. See Third Am. Compl. ("TAC") ¶ 2, ECF No. 42. Plaintiffs Nasrin Mohammadi and Simin Taylor are Akbar's sisters, [1] and plaintiff Manouchehr Mohammadi is Akbar's brother. Id. Although Akbar is also referred to as a plaintiff in the Third Amended Complaint, see id., the plaintiffs clarify that Nasrin represents the estate of Akbar in this action. See Supplemental Legal Mem. on Jurisdiction & Related Issues ("Pls.' Mem.") at 4, ECF No. 40.[2] All three plaintiffs were born in Iran, though all of them currently reside in California. TAC ¶ 2.

In 1994, Manouchehr and Akbar were college students living in Tehran, where they became involved in political activism. See Aff. of Manouchehr Mohammadi ("Manouchehr Aff.") ¶¶ 3-4, ECF No. 20-1; Hr'g Ex. 3 ("Akbar Diary") at 2-3, ECF No. 20-1.[3] During this time, Akbar and Mancouchehr organized pro-freedom and pro-democracy political gatherings that were critical of the Iranian government. See Manouchehr Aff. ¶¶ 5-6, 16; see also Tr. of Evidentiary Hr'g at 30:16-22, 31:15-23 (Apr. 4, 2013), ECF No. 33-1. These political activities drew the attention of the Iranian government, who "considered [them] enemies." Manouchehr Aff. ¶ 6. As a part of their political activism, Akbar and Manouchehr participated in the student protests in Tehran in July 1999. See id. ¶ 16; see also Howard Schneider & John Lancaster, Violence Rages for 6th Day in Tehran; Police, Vigilantes Disperse Student Demonstrators in Battle over Reform (hereinafter Schneider & Lancaster, Violence Rages ), WASH. POST, July 14, 1999, at A1. Those protests, which were "among the largest" since the 1979 revolution, "began in reaction to a violent police raid on a Tehran University dormitory" and "spread quickly to several other cities and broadened into an outcry of frustration with [the Iranian] social and political order." See Schneider & Lancaster, Violence Rages. The dormitory raid had been "a response to a much smaller student protest of the closing of a liberal newspaper, " but the clashes between students and security forces ultimately left at least two people dead and an unknown number of students in police custody. Id. ; see also Howard Schneider & John Lancaster, 100, 000 Rally Behind Iran's Clerics; Demonstration Counters Week of Protests by Reform-Minded Students, WASH. POST, July 15, 1999, at A19.

On July 15, 1999, Akbar and Manouchehr were arrested by agents of the Iranian Ministry of Information for their role in the protests and were brought to Evin prison, which is located in Tehran. See Manouchehr Aff. ¶ 17; Akbar Diary at 3-5; Aff. of Michael Ledeen ("Ledeen Aff.") ¶ 16, ECF No. 34-1. While incarcerated at Evin, Akbar and Manouchehr were brutally and repeatedly tortured. See Manouchehr Aff. ¶ 24. The physical torture consisted of, inter alia, flogging the brothers with cables, hanging them from the ceiling by their hands for hours on end, depriving them of sleep, exposing them to the elements in their prison cells, burning their genitals with a cigarette lighter, and beating them to the point of unconsciousness. See, e.g., Akbar Diary at 9-10; Tr. of Evidentiary Hr'g at 51:2-54:19.[4] Their torture was also psychological in nature. As Manouchehr testified at the evidentiary hearing, he and Akbar were tortured in front of one another and forced to undergo at least five mock executions and other threats of execution, which were intended "to break [them] psychologically down." See Tr. of Evidentiary Hr'g at 48:18-22, 49:1-13. In moving testimony at the evidentiary hearing, Manouchehr described how this torture has resulted in his permanent physical and psychological damage, including the removal of nine teeth, persistent pain throughout several areas of his body, and a general inability to enjoy life. See id. at 49:25-51:10, 53:22-54:6; Manouchehr Aff. ¶ 49.

The torture described above lasted for over seven years. See Manouchehr Aff. ¶¶ 54-55. In July 2006, Akbar went on a hunger strike-one of several hunger strikes during his imprisonment. See Tr. of Evidentiary Hr'g at 55:15-56:10; see also TAC ¶ 21; Akbar Diary at 27-30 (describing other hunger strikes). After five days of refusing food in his cell, Akbar was moved to the prison's clinic, where he received medical treatment and continued to refuse food for three more days. See Tr. of Evidentiary Hr'g at 55:15-56:10. During this hunger strike, Akbar was beaten as well. See id. At the evidentiary hearing, Manouchehr recounted that, after this eight-day hunger strike, on July 31, 2006, Akbar died. See id. at 57:8-58:5; TAC ¶ 21. Manouchehr further testified that Akbar was suspected to have been killed by an unspecified type of "dust" sprayed in Akbar's hospital room, which "would cause you a heart attack." See Tr. of Evidentiary Hr'g at 58:9-59:2. The precise cause of Akbar's death was never determined, however. See Manouchehr Aff. ¶ 59. The plaintiffs presented evidence that the arrest, torture, and murder of Akbar were done pursuant to the direct orders of defendants Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. See Aff. of Alan Keyes ¶ 7, ECF No. 34-2 ("[A]ll actions undertaken... by the Iranian regime, with regard to the arrest, torture, and murder of Iranian dissidents are done under the direct order of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."); Tr. of Evidentiary Hr'g at 143:25-144:3 ("[W]hen it comes to important things like killing dissidents, like building nuclear weapons, like sending terrorist teams overseas, they do not freelance. This is done at a very, very high level.").[5]

After Akbar's death, Manouchehr was permitted to leave prison temporarily to attend Akbar's funeral. See Manouchehr Aff. ¶¶ 55, 64. While on leave from prison, Manouchehr fled to Iraq, and then crossed the border into Turkey. Id. ¶ 65. While in Turkey, Manouchehr was arrested and threatened with extradition to Iran, but in October 2006 the U.S. State Department intervened and secured Manouchehr's safe passage to the United States. See id. ¶¶ 65-66; Supplemental Aff. of Manouchehr Mohammadi ("Manouchehr Supp. Aff.") ¶ 2, ECF No. 35-2; Tr. of Evidentiary Hr'g at 42:17-44:2. In addition to the State Department, Manouchehr was aided by journalist Michael Ledeen and former U.S. government official Richard Perle. See Manouchehr Supp. Aff. ¶ 3; Ledeen Aff. ¶ 13. On August 3, 2010, Manouchehr became a permanent resident of the United States. Manouchehr Supp. Aff. ¶ 5.

The evidence submitted by the plaintiffs also reveals that Akbar and Manouchehr were not the only members of the Mohammadi family to be injured by one or more of the defendants or their agents. Nasrin testified at the evidentiary hearing that an individual she believed to be an agent of the Iranian government attempted to murder her in July 2002 while she was living in Germany. See Tr. of Evidentiary Hr'g at 89:14-20, 91:16-92:24; Pls.' Ex. 2, at 2-3 (admitted at evidentiary hearing). Nasrin also testified that she attempted suicide after Akbar's death. See Tr. of Evidentiary Hr'g at 109:17-110:20. Additionally, Simin Taylor averred that she was imprisoned in Iran at some unspecified time prior to October 2006, and while in prison she was threatened with rape. See Taylor Aff. ¶¶ 4, 7. She states that she "continue[s] to suffer from nightmares because of the memories [she has] from prison." Id. ¶ 11.

Furthermore, Manouchehr and Nasrin testified that they have experienced ongoing harassment from the Iranian regime since relocating to the United States. For example, Manouchehr testified that he has received several threatening telephone calls from individuals in Iran who identify themselves as being a part of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence. See Tr. of Evidentiary Hr'g at 79:4-83:17. These phone calls have included threats to Manouchehr's life and the lives of his parents, who still live in Iran. See id. Nasrin testified that in 2009 her Facebook account was hacked, and a doctored photograph of her, depicting her in an immodest light, was circulated to her friends and professional acquaintances. See id. at 164:23-166:14. Nasrin also testified that she believes there to be "agents" of the Iranian government living in the United States who are monitoring the plaintiffs' activities and who "want to hurt... people or kill people." See id. at 166:15-167:7.[6] This was corroborated by the plaintiffs' expert witnesses. Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, Jr. testified that agents of the Iranian regime carry out operations to harm Iranians overseas, including in the United States.[7] See id. at 120:6-25. Additionally, Kenneth R. Timmerman, an author and former Middle East reporter, testified that Iranians living in the Los Angeles area in particular are "under high surveillance by Iranian government agents." Id. at 127:8-16[8]

Currently, Nasrin is a United States citizen-a status she obtained on April 22, 2009. See Supp. Aff. of Nasrin Mohammadi ("Nasrin Supp. Aff.") ¶ 6, ECF No. 35-1. Nasrin first applied for permanent residency in the United States in June 2005, and she received that permanent residency in February 2006. Id. ¶¶ 4-5. Manouchehr applied for permanent residency in October 2006 and was granted permanent resident status on August 3, 2010. See Manouchehr Supp. Aff. ¶¶ 2-3, 5. Ms. Taylor applied for permanent residency on October 1, 2007 and became a United States citizen on December 15, 2011. See Taylor Aff. ¶¶ 8, 10.

B. Procedural Background

The plaintiffs filed their original Complaint in this action on July 10, 2009. See ECF No. 1.[9] They filed an Amended Complaint on January 27, 2010. See Am. Compl., ECF No. 5. The previous presiding Judge in this case directed the plaintiffs to file proof of service of the Amended Complaint upon the defendants.[10] See Order dated Aug. 20, 2010, ECF No. 6. Before the Amended Complaint was served, the plaintiffs filed a Second Amended Complaint on September 22, 2010, with the leave of the Court. See Second Am. Compl. ("SAC"), ECF No. 11. Each of the three aforementioned iterations of the plaintiffs' complaint were pleaded as class actions. The original Complaint and the Amended Complaint were brought on behalf of a class consisting of "all Iranians who have had their civil and human rights violated, been assaulted, battered, tortured, and even murdered to keep a vicious, illegitimate and inhuman radical regime in power." Compl. ¶ 7; Am. Compl. ¶ 13. The Second Amended Complaint was brought on behalf of a class consisting not only of "Iranians and Iranian-Americans" harmed by the Iranian regime but also "United States servicemen stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere... who were murdered or harmed or threatened by or as a direct and proximate result of Defendants' actions." SAC ¶¶ 9, 10.

On December 15, 2010, in response to the Court's directive, the plaintiffs filed an affidavit from a third party, stating that he had "personally served each and every one of the named defendants by serving the Embassy of Switzerland [in Washington, D.C.], which is the representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its government officials and entities with regard to the United States." See Return of Service at 2, ECF No. 14. Service was performed by hand-delivering summonses and copies of the Amended Complaint to "the document intake person inside the [Washington, D.C.] Embassy."[11] Id. Over nine months later, the plaintiffs filed a motion for entry of default and for default judgment against the defendants. See Mot. for Entry of Default & Mot. for Default J. ("Default Mem."), ECF No. 15. The Court granted the plaintiffs' request regarding the entry of default and directed the Clerk to enter a default against each of the defendants, see Order dated Dec. 8, 2011, ECF No. 16, and the Clerk did so on December 8, 2011, see Default, ECF No. 17. The Court held a status conference on December 16, 2011, at which the Court directed the plaintiffs to submit evidence by way of affidavits to establish the defendants' liability. See Minute Order dated Dec. 16, 2011. The Court also scheduled an evidentiary hearing to establish damages. See id.

The plaintiffs submitted two affidavits in support of liability on February 9, 2012: one from Manouchehr Mohammadi, and one from Kenneth Timmerman. See Aff. of Manouchehr Mohammadi (Feb. 3, 2012), ECF No. 20-1; Aff. of Kenneth R. Timmerman (Feb. 8, 2012), ECF No. 20-2. On December 14, 2012, the Court held a further status conference with plaintiffs' counsel to discuss the procedures for submitting further evidence and to clarify the scope and nature of the plaintiffs' claims. During that status conference, plaintiffs' counsel indicated to the Court that the plaintiffs intended to abandon their class-action allegations and to proceed only with the Mohammadis as plaintiffs. See Tr. of Status Conference at 4:12-5:8 (Dec. 14, 2012). The Court also set a date for an evidentiary hearing during that December 12, 2012 status conference, for the purpose of receiving any further evidence regarding liability or damages. See Minute Entry dated Dec. 14, 2012.

In preparation for the evidentiary hearing, the Court directed the plaintiffs to file a final witness list and any further affidavits or declarations. See Order dated Mar. 22, 2013, ECF No. 25. The Court also directed the plaintiffs' counsel to come to the evidentiary hearing prepared to discuss further (1) the scope of the relief sought by the plaintiffs; and (2) the basis for the Court's subject-matter jurisdiction over this action. The Court held an evidentiary hearing on April 4, 2013, in which the plaintiffs presented testimony and other evidence to support their claims. Prior to the presentation of evidence, the Court held oral argument with plaintiffs' counsel regarding the jurisdictional questions raised by the Court's April 1, 2013 Order. See Tr. of Evidentiary Hr'g at 4:5-26:13. After hearing the plaintiffs' arguments, the Court concluded: "I am not fully persuaded yet that I have either subject matter jurisdiction to hear these claims, nor personal jurisdiction over the two individual officials in order to enter any form of default judgment against any... of the defendants." Id. at 26:17-21. The Court further cautioned: "I am going to hear testimony today, but I don't want you or your clients to be under any misimpression about my continuing feelings of being quite troubled by the jurisdictional-both subject matter and personal jurisdictional issues raised by the-by these claims." Id. at 27:6-11; see also id. at 27:14-20 ("Since the plaintiffs have been waiting for some time now to tell their story, to have their claims heard, I'm not going to deny them that opportunity now, and we'll give you sufficient time to try and persuade me of your very creative interpretations of both the torture' definition and the scope and reach of the FSIA.").

Following the evidentiary hearing, the Court provided the plaintiffs yet another opportunity to submit further evidence in support of liability or damages, and the Court also permitted the plaintiffs to submit supplemental briefing regarding the subject-matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction issues discussed during oral argument. See Minute Order dated Apr. 4, 2013. On April 30, 2013, the plaintiffs filed a motion to amend their Complaint for a third time, see Pls.' Unopposed Mot. to File Third Am. Compl., ECF No. 39, which the Court granted, see Minute Order dated May 15, 2013. According to the Third Amended Complaint, filed on May 15, 2013, the plaintiffs alleges five claims for relief: (1) engaging in terrorism and/or providing material support to a terrorist organization; (2) assault and battery; (3) intentional infliction of emotional distress; (4) wrongful death; and (5) personal injury and death caused by acts of torture and extrajudicial killing, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1605A. See TAC ¶¶ 29-57. The Third Amended Complaint is not pleaded as a class action, and the only named plaintiffs are Manouchehr Mohammadi, Nasrin Mohammadi, and Simin Mohammadi, on ...


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