Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Hamen v. Islamic Republic of Iran

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 7, 2019

JENNIFER HAMEN, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          RANDOLPH D. MOSS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This case arises from the kidnapping and detention of two United States citizens-and the murder of one of those citizens-by members of the Houthi militant group in Yemen. In October 2015, Mark McAlister and John Hamen were abducted from the airport in Sana'a, Yemen and transported to a detention facility. Hamen was killed sixteen days later. McAlister was held at that facility for over six months, and then released. Plaintiffs, who are all U.S. nationals, bring this suit against the Islamic Republic of Iran, invoking the state-sponsored terrorism exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1605A(a). They rely on another provision in the statute, § 1605A(c), to supply a federal cause of action, alleging that Iran provided “material support” to the Houthis, who used that support to engage in acts of hostage taking, torture, and extrajudicial killing. Plaintiffs allege that the Houthis have benefitted from and relied on training, funding, direction, and support from Iran and that, without Iranian aid, the Houthis could not have kidnapped and detained McAlister and Hamen or murdered Hamen.

         Iran has not answered or otherwise appeared in this action and, at Plaintiffs' request, the Clerk of the Court entered a default. Plaintiffs now move for a default judgment against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Dkt. 31. As explained below, Plaintiffs have established their right to relief under 28 U.S.C. § 1605A(c). Accordingly, Plaintiffs' motion for the entry of a default judgment against the Islamic Republic of Iran will be granted. The Court will refer the matter to a special master to assist in evaluating Plaintiffs' damages.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiffs Mark McAlister, the estate of John Hamen, and eleven of their family members, bring this action against Defendants the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Syrian Arab Republic for “provi[ding] material military and economic support” to the Yemeni militant group that abducted McAlister and Hamen, held them captive, and murdered Hamen, alleging that the “violence . . . [was] an expected and welcomed result of such support.” Dkt. 1 at 16-17 (Compl. ¶¶ 94, 106). Plaintiffs effected service on the Islamic Republic of Iran in December 2017, Dkt. 25, and Iran has not answered, filed a motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12, or otherwise appeared, Dkt. 26. In July 2018, Plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed their claims against the Syrian Arab Republic. Dkt. 42.

         Plaintiffs now seek entry of a default judgment against the Islamic Republic of Iran pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 55. Dkt. 32. Entry of a default judgment is not automatic, however, and requires the Court to exercise its sound discretion. See Mwani v. bin Laden, 417 F.3d 1, 6 (D.C. Cir. 2005); Sanchez v. Devashish Hospitality, LLC, 322 F.R.D. 32, 36 (D.D.C. 2017); Boland v. Yoccabel Const. Co., 293 F.R.D. 13, 17 (D.D.C. 2013) (citing Jackson v. Beech, 636 F.2d 831, 836 (D.C. Cir. 1980)). Most notably, the Court must-in all cases- satisfy itself that it has subject-matter jurisdiction over the claims and personal jurisdiction over the defendant. See Jerez v. Republic of Cuba, 775 F.3d 419, 422 (D.C. Cir. 2014) (“A default judgment rendered in excess of a court's jurisdiction is void.”); Mwani, 417 F.3d at 6 (explaining that a court must “satisfy itself that it has personal jurisdiction before entering judgment against an absent defendant”).

         In cases brought against a foreign state, however, the Court's discretion to enter a default judgment is more narrowly circumscribed. By statute, no federal or state court may enter a default judgment against a foreign state or instrumentality “unless the claimant establishes his claim or right to relief by evidence satisfactory to the court.” 28 U.S.C. § 1608(e). This is the same standard that applies to default judgments against the United States under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 55(d). See Owens v. Republic of Sudan, 864 F.3d 751, 785 (D.C. Cir. 2017); Hill v. Republic of Iraq, 328 F.3d 680, 683 (D.C. Cir. 2003). In a case such as this, which alleges that a foreign state materially supported acts of terrorism, the district court must determine “how much and what kinds of evidence the plaintiff must provide.” Han Kim v. Democratic People's Republic of Korea, 774 F.3d 1044, 1047 (D.C. Cir. 2014). And the Court must do so in light of both Congress's purpose in enacting § 1605A-that is, to “compensate the victims of terrorism [so as to] punish foreign states who have committed or sponsored such acts and [to] deter them from doing so in the future, ” id. at 1048 (citation omitted)-and the difficulty in obtaining “firsthand evidence and eyewitness testimony . . . from an absent and likely hostile sovereign, ” Owens, 864 F.3d at 785. As a result, Plaintiffs carry the burden of (1) producing evidence sufficient to show that their claims fall within the state-sponsored terrorism exception to the FSIA, see 28 U.S.C. § 1605A(a); Owens, 864 F.3d at 784; (2) establishing that Iran was served in accordance with the FSIA, see 28 U.S.C. § 1608(a); and (3) demonstrating their right to relief under federal, see 28 U.S.C. § 1605A(c), or state law, Owens, 864 F.3d at 808, by offering evidence “satisfactory to the court, ” 28 U.S.C. § 1608(e).

         Against this backdrop, the Court held a two-day hearing on liability, Dkt. 48 (Jul. 25, 2018 Hrg. Tr.), Dkt. 49 (Jul. 26, 2018 Hrg. Tr.), and received additional evidentiary submissions, Dkt. 44-1, Dkt. 44-2, Dkt. 44-3, as well as proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law from Plaintiffs, Dkt. 53. In the course of the hearing, the Court applied the Federal Rules of Evidence, but did so on the understanding, first, that it has “the authority-indeed, . . . the obligation-to ‘adjust [evidentiary requirements] to . . . differing situations, '” Han Kim, 774 F.3d at 1048 (quoting Bundy v. Jackson, 641 F.2d 934, 951 (D.C. Cir. 1981)) (modifications in Han Kim), and, second, that the Court need not “step into the shoes of the defaulting party and pursue every possible evidentiary challenge, ” Owens, 864 F.3d at 785. Expert testimony, moreover, is not only entirely proper, but often sufficient, see Id. at 787-89, and even indispensable in “terrorism cases . . . because firsthand evidence of terrorist activities is difficult, if not impossible to obtain.” Id. at 787. Whether through expert testimony or other competent evidence, the Court must ultimately determine whether the Plaintiffs have “substantiate[d] [the] essential element[s] of jurisdiction” with admissible evidence. Id. at 786.

         Based upon the record and the facts available for judicial notice, the Court now makes the following findings of fact and conclusions of law.

         II. FINDINGS OF FACT

         Plaintiffs' evidentiary presentation included testimony from eleven witnesses (including experts), and over a dozen exhibits (including government reports). The Court heard from Michael Pregent, a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and former intelligence officer and fellow at the National Defense University; Dr. Daniel Green, a Defense Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Dr. Jonathan Arden, a forensic pathologist who previously served as the Chief Medical Examiner of the Northern Virginia Region and First Deputy Chief Medical Examiner for the City of New York; and representatives from each of the families of the abducted or murdered Americans. See Dkt. 48 (Jul. 25, 2018 Hrg. Tr.); Dkt. 49 (Jul. 26, 2018 Hrg. Tr.).

         Based on the testimony of these witnesses and the exhibits admitted into evidence, the Court finds as follows: First, Iran provided the Houthis with significant support, either directly or indirectly through other proxies, in the form of training, weapons, and funding, as part of its larger strategy to use proxy groups to destabilize the region. Second, the Houthis would not have been in a position to effectuate the abduction of McAlister and Hamen from the Sana'a Airport, or the murder of Hamen, without the assistance of Iran. Third, the Houthis would not have attempted the kidnapping and hostage-taking of Mark McAlister and John Hamen without the backing of Iran. The Court ultimately concludes that, through these actions, Iran supported the hostage taking of McAlister and the murder of Hamen. The Court will discuss the factual foundation for each of these conclusions in turn.

         A. Iran's Provision of Support to the Houthis

         1. Overview of Iran's Proxy Strategy

         Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Iran has sought to maintain influence over other countries in the region, such as Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, by pursuing a strategy of “destabilizing” and “fractur[ing]” the governments in those countries. Dkt. 48 at 173-74 (Pregent).[1] One of the principal ways that Iran has sought to achieve this goal is by financing and supporting local groups known as “proxy organizations, ” which Iran, in turn, uses to “strategically carry out Iran's goals.” Id. (Pregent). By using these groups as surrogates, Iran is able to achieve its goals in the region, while simultaneously denying responsibility for the actions of its proxies.

         The Iranian military body responsible for identifying and training proxy organizations is known as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force (“Qods Force”). Id. at 173-74 (Pregent). The Qods Force is the “external operating body” of the Iranian government, id. at 174 (Pregent), and “focuses on conducting foreign operations which support insurgents and terrorists, ” Dkt. 32-4 at 8 (Green Aff. ¶ 33). The commander of the Qods Force, General Qasem Soleimani, reports directly to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khomeini. Dkt. 48 at 174 (Pregent).

         The Qods Force coordinates with proxy militant groups to conduct terrorist attacks by providing weapons, training, funding, and guidance. Id. at 179-80 (Pregent); Ex. 10 at 3.[2] Once the Qods Force develops a relationship with a group, it supplies weapons, which range from small arms such as AK-47s to sophisticated weaponry such as antitank weapons and explosively formed penetrators, depending on the group's training and capability. Dkt. 48 at 180-81 (Pregent); Dkt. 49 at 63-64 (Pregent). The Qods force also trains proxies to use those weapons, both in the home countries of the proxies and in other areas in the region. Dkt. 48 at 182-83 (Pregent).

         In addition to military support and training, the Qods Force “exports” to its proxies a “collection of behaviors[, ] tactics, and capabilities, ” Dkt. 49 at 111 (Green), which includes other terrorism techniques such as “bomb making” and “assassination and kidnapping, ” Dkt. 48 at 182 (Pregent). Of particular relevance here, Iran encourages its proxy groups to kidnap “high value targets” by providing “incentives” in the form of “a bounty or reward.” Id. at 191-92 (Pregent). The “highest value target” to Iran is an American. Id. (Pregent). The Qods Force also typically exercises control over its proxies' efforts to kidnap Americans because such operations and subsequent negotiations are complex and can potentially implicate Iran if not strategically executed. Id. at 16-18 (Pregent).

         According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the Qods Force has supported militant groups including the Taliban, Hamas, and-most relevant here-the Lebanese Hezbollah (“Hezbollah”). Ex. 10 at 3. As a result of these activities, the State Department has designated Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism, see U.S. Dep't of State, State Sponsors of Terrorism, available at https://www.state.gov/j/ct/list/c14151.htm (last visited August 7, 2019), and the Treasury Department has designated the IRGC's Qods Force as providing support for terrorism, Ex. 10 at 1, 3.

         2. Hezbollah

         Hezbollah's role as an Iranian proxy force is relevant to this case in two respects. First, it serves as an example of how Iran cultivates militant organizations in other countries and employs them as surrogates-a model that Iran applied to the Houthis in Yemen. Dkt. 48 at 185-86 (Pregent). Second, Hezbollah served as a liaison between Iran and the Houthis to provide training and regular financial support.

         The Qods Force has developed Hezbollah as a proxy for over 20 years. See Id. at 185 (Pregent). As a result of that ongoing and established relationship, Hezbollah is today regarded as the “gold standard” for what Iran hopes to achieve with proxy militias in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Id. at 184-85 (Pregent). In particular, Hezbollah is directed by the Qods Force to conduct external operations on Iran's behalf, and, in order to facilitate those efforts, Iran provides Hezbollah with a budget of roughly $200 million per year. Id. at 185-86 (Pregent).[3]Hezbollah's “3800 Unit” is responsible for Hezbollah's training activities that support the proxy militias-including the Houthis-and the 3800 Unit develops a closer relationship with the proxies through proximity and frequent interactions. Id. at 190 (Pregent). To further strengthen Hezbollah's relationship with other proxies, it often distributes funding to these groups at Iran's direction. Id. at 191 (Pregent). The Qods Force also maintains oversight over Hezbollah and its 3800 Unit by sending advisers to oversee the Unit and to meet with proxy leadership. Id. at 192 (Pregent).

         Also relevant here, the Unit's training of proxy groups typically includes not only weapons training, but also training in kidnapping and hostage-taking techniques, focusing on American targets. Dkt. 49 at 16 (Pregent). Notably, Hezbollah trains proxy groups to target lower profile Americans (i.e., not high-ranking officials or diplomats) such as enlisted soldiers and contractors, to avoid triggering a military response. Id. at 16-17 (Pregent). Specific techniques include using American accents either to gain access to the target or to interrogate the detainee. Id. at 18 (Pregent).

         Based on this evidence, and consistent with numerous other decisions from this Court, the Court finds that Hezbollah is an Iranian proxy. See, e.g., Fritz v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 320 F.Supp.3d 48, 60 (D.D.C. 2018); Friends of Mayanot Inst., Inc. v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 313 F.Supp.3d 50, 54-55 (D.D.C. 2018); Peterson v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 264 F.Supp.2d 46, 53 (D.D.C. 2003); Stern v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 271 F.Supp.2d 286, 292 (D.D.C. 2003).

         3. The Houthis

         a. Origins

         The Houthis originate from the Saada Governorate region in the northwest of Yemen, near the border of Saudi Arabia. The group began as a localized insurgency, which protested the Yemen government's economic discrimination and political marginalization of the region. Dkt. 49 at 43-44 (Green); Dkt. 32-4 (Green Aff. ¶ 20). The Houthis, like many northern Yemenis, subscribe to the Zaidi Shia religion, which differs from the Iranian Shia religion and from the religion of most Yemenis, which is Sunni. Dkt. 49 at 44 (Green). The Houthis are named for one of its leading families-the al-Houthis-and adopted that family name when the group's first leader, Hussain al-Houthi, was killed by government forces. Hussain al-Houthi “embrace[d] the radical elements of Iranian foreign policy” since travelling there in 1986, including “a rabid opposition to the United States and Israel.” Dkt. 32-4 at 6 (Green Aff. ¶ 24). Before his death, Hussain al-Houthi popularized the Houthi chant, known as the “sarkha, ” of “God is great! Death to America! Death to Israel! A curse upon the Jews! Victory for Islam!” Dkt. 51-1 at 1 (Green Supp. Aff. ¶¶ 5-6). These words also appear in Arabic on patches worn by Houthi soldiers. Dkt. 48 at 52-53 (McAlister).

         Until the early 2000s, the Houthis remained a localized insurgency. Dkt. 49 at 43-44 (Green). In 2004, however, the government of Yemen launched a military campaign against the Saada Governorate region, and the al-Houthi family in particular, which triggered a period of “six wars” between the Houthis and the Yemen government. Id. at 45-46 (Green). Even at this early stage in the Houthis' history, Iran supported and exerted influence over the group, but, Iran's influence was limited at the time, and the Yemen government remained strong. Id. at 46- 47, 96 (Green). The six wars officially came to an end in 2010, when, after much death and destruction, both sides signed a peace accord. Id. at 46 (Green).

         In 2011, the Arab Spring movement took hold in Yemen, which led to broad-based demonstrations against the government, which, coupled with “poor governance, corruption, and incompetence[, ] . . . contributed to a general collapse of government control throughout the country.” Dkt. 32-4 at 7 (Green Aff. ¶ 30); Dkt. 49 at 48 (Green). In 2012, Ali Abdullah Saleh resigned as President of Yemen, and a provisional government, backed by the United Nations and international community, took control until Saleh's former vice-President, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, was elected about a year later. Dkt. 49 at 49-51 (Green). Saleh retained power and influence, however, particularly in his home province in the north of Yemen, with sections of the Yemen military remaining loyal to him. Id. at 50, 54 (Green).

         During this political transition, Iran took steps to “deepen its relationship with the Houthis and to expand its assistance to the group.” Dkt. 32-4 at 8 (Green Aff. ¶ 31); see also Dkt. 49 at 6 (“[T]he IRGC-Qods Force increase[d] the Houthis' capabilities during the 2010- 2011 uprisings . . . .”). With Iran's backing, the Houthis took up arms against Yemen's government and began to infiltrate Yemen's capital city of Sana'a. Dkt. 49 at 54 (Green). During this time, the Houthis-enabled by Iran-also joined forces with former President Saleh, forming a coalition with the goal of isolating and marginalizing the Yemen government under Hadi's authority. Id. at 54 (Green). In 2014, the Houthis attacked Sana'a, seizing the city and forcing President Hadi to flee to the south of Yemen. Id. at 53-54 (Green). The Houthis solidified their control of the city by seizing the homes of opponents who had fled, undertaking an assassination campaign against prominent leaders, and initiating a detention program against potential opponents. Id. at 55-56 (Green). When the Houthis' took control of Sana'a, the United States withdrew its diplomatic personnel in February 2015. Id. at 54-55 (Green). By the time Mark McAlister and John Hamen flew to Sana'a on October 20, 2015, the city and its airport were firmly under Houthi control. Id. at 55 (Green).

         b. Iran's Provision of Funding, Weapons, and Training

         There is ample evidence that Iran has facilitated arms shipments to the Houthis since at least 2009. Id. at 58-64 (Green); Dkt. 32-4 at 13 (Green Aff. ¶¶ 49-50). The evidence submitted at trial showed that numerous shipments originating in Iran and carrying Iranian-made weapons-ranging from small arms to advanced weaponry-have been recovered on their way to Houthi territory. Dkt. 49 at 58-64 (Green). Arms shipments including ammunition, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 122 millimeter rockets, C4 plastic explosive blocks, electrical equipment that can be used to manufacture improvised explosive devices, AK-47s, unmanned aerial vehicles, and explosively formed penetrators, have been intercepted on their way to Houthi territory. Id. at 58-59, 63 (Green). The weapons shipped, moreover, have become increasingly sophisticated over time. Dkt. 49 at 63 (Green).

         There is also evidence of the use of Iranian-made weapons: Iranian-made SCUD missiles were fired at Saudi Arabia from Houthi-controlled territory, id. at 65-66 (Green); id. at 7-12 (Pregent); the Houthis used an Iranian “Shark 33” attack boat to attack the Saudis, id. at 13-14 (Pregent); and the Houthis used Iranian-made sea mines in southern Yemen, id. at 66 (Green). Iran has continued to supply arms and arms-related material to the Houthis despite agreeing not to do so as part of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the United States and United Nations. Id. at 70-85 (Green). There is also no indication that Iran provided support of this type to any group in Yemen other than the Houthis, id. at 14 (Pregent), confirming the conclusion that the arms shipments were intended for the Houthis. The repeated nature of the shipments and the variety and sophistication of armaments, moreover, reflect a significant, long-term commitment on behalf of Iran to militarily support the Houthis. Dkt. 32-4 at 14 (Green Aff. ¶ 51). Iran has also provided financial support to the Houthis. There is evidence, for example, that Iran directed Hezbollah's 3800 Unit to provide the Houthis $50, 000 per month, or about $600, 000 per year. Dkt. 48 at 187-91 (Pregent).

         In addition to providing financial support and weapons, Iran has provided training to the Houthi militants, either directly or through Hezbollah. Since 2009, Houthi militants have received training at Hezbollah training camps, Dkt. 49 at 15 (Pregent), including in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, id. at 96 (Green). Beginning in 2011, Iran assigned Qods Force officer Abdul Reza Shahlai as the leader of its efforts to “advise, assist, resource, and train the Houthis, ” Dkt. 32-4 (Green Aff. ¶ 32); Dkt. 49 at 53, 64, 96 (Green). In 2013 and 2015, select Houthis participated in combat in Syria after having undergone training in Hezbollah training camps. Dkt. 49 at 15-16 (Pregent). In October 2014, several 3800 Unit members were captured in Yemen while training the Houthis. Id. at 18-19 (Pregent). Hezbollah leaders have also confirmed training the Houthis in Yemen, Lebanon, and Iran. Dkt. 32-4 at 11 (Green Aff. ¶ 43).

         There is also evidence that Iran trained the Houthis on hostage taking and kidnapping techniques. Although kidnapping was used as a political tool in Yemen prior to Iran's influence, those tactics predominantly involved kidnapping other Yemenis. Dkt. 49 at 68-69 (Green). In 2015, however, the Houthis took at least four civilian Americans hostage prior to the kidnapping of McAlister and Hamen. Dkt. 51-1 at 1 (Green Supp. Aff. ¶¶ 1-4); Dkt. 49 at 108 (Green). Plaintiffs' experts agree that due to the risk and complexity of kidnapping Americans and holding them ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.