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Abedini v. Government of Islamic Republic of Iran

United States District Court, District of Columbia

November 13, 2019

SAEED ABEDINI, et al., Plaintiffs,



         Plaintiff Saeed Abedini has spent 1, 268 days of his life in captivity. In July 2012, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps took him hostage and detained him until January 2016. For three and a half years, Abedini was interrogated, tortured, and beaten. He and his sister, Zibandeh Abedini Galangashy, now come before this Court seeking recompense for their injuries and punishment for Defendants, the Islamic Republic of Iran and its instrumentalities. Specifically, Plaintiffs seek to hold Iran liable for damages under the terrorism exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. As Iran failed to appear, default was entered last year. It now falls to the Court to determine whether to award default judgment and, if so, what damages are appropriate.

         As Plaintiffs have complied with all procedural prerequisites, the first task is easy: a default judgment is appropriate in this case. Determining the fair amount of damages, conversely, requires a difficult weighing of relative injuries. The Court ultimately holds that respective sums of $44, 621, 460 to Abedini and $2, 547, 716 to Galangashy are appropriate, yielding a total of $47, 169, 176.

         I. Background

         Abedini was born and raised in Iran, where he converted to Christianity as a young adult and became a pastor in the home-church movement. See ECF No. 18 (Memorandum in Support of Motion for Default Judgment) at 2. He later moved to the United States with his wife - a U.S. national - where they raised their two children. Id. at 3-4. In the summer of 2012, Abedini returned to Iran to help oversee an orphanage there. Id., Exh. A (Declaration of Saeed Abedini), ¶ 18. During this trip, on July 28, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized Abedini and took him hostage. See Default J. Memo at 2; Abedini Decl., ¶ 18. Throughout his confinement, Abedini suffered unbearable conditions, including frequent threats and torture. For over three years, he was housed in Evin Prison and Rajai Shahr Prison. See Abedini Decl., ¶¶ 62, 89, 94. He was commonly forced to live in cells covered in human waste, id., ¶¶ 31, 102, and he was denied proper nourishment and medical treatment. Id., ¶¶ 43-45, 93, 101. Often, he was surrounded by inmates who repeatedly beat him. Id., ¶¶ 96-97, 104.

         Early in his confinement, Abedini faced trial without a lawyer. See Default J. Memo at 5. He was sentenced to death for “being a United States spy and for his Christian faith.” Id.; see also id. at 12-13. After his trial, he lived in constant fear of his impending execution. See Abedini Decl., ¶¶ 80, 117-18. When he refused to confess to these alleged crimes - or refused to name others involved in the home-church movement in Iran - IRGC guards would beat him. Id., ¶¶ 36, 47-51, 55, 65, 68-69. He was whipped on his back and feet, shocked using a taser gun on his kidneys, and hung by handcuffs from the ceiling. Id., ¶¶ 51, 57. IRGC guards would threaten to rape, imprison, and kill his family. Id., ¶¶ 52-53. As part of the torture, Abedini was forced into a “living grave” - a drawer with no light, food, water, or space to move. Id., ¶ 69.

         Having survived these conditions, Abedini was finally released on January 16, 2016, with four other American prisoners in exchange for clemency for seven Iranians who had been indicted or imprisoned in the U.S. See Default J. Memo at 19. After his release, his marriage crumbled, and he moved from city to city in constant fear that agents of Iran would come after him again. Id. at 20-21.

         During her brother's captivity, Galangashy worried that she, too, would be targeted by Iran. Id. at 24-25. Fearing for her own safety, she moved to the U.S. in 2013, forcing her to fall behind in her pursuit of a B.A. in Psychology. Id. at 25-26. After learning of her brother's confinement and death sentence, she constantly feared for his life. Id. at 26. Following his release, she ultimately continued her studies in Lynchburg, Virginia, where she now lives with him. Id. at 26-27.

         Plaintiffs filed this suit on March 16, 2018, and named Iran and “Its Ministries, Agencies, and Instrumentalities” as Defendants. See ECF No. 1. (The Court will refer to Defendants collectively as Iran.) Plaintiffs effected service on October 1, 2018. See ECF No. 22 (Service Opinion) at 6. Iran failed to answer the Complaint, and Plaintiffs requested an entry of default on December 3, 2018, which was granted one week later. See ECF Nos. 10, 14. Plaintiffs then moved for default judgment. This Court held an evidentiary hearing on September 20, 2019, where it heard testimony from both Plaintiffs, as well as from their psychological and political experts. Having carefully considered their written statements and oral testimony, the Court now decides both liability and damages.

         II. Legal Standard

         Where a defendant is “totally unresponsive, ” the Court may enter default judgment if the default is plainly willful - as reflected by a defendant's failure to respond to the summons and complaint, the entry of default, or the motion for default judgment. Gutierrez v. Berg Contracting Inc., No. 99-3044, 2000 WL 331721, at *1 (D.D.C. March 20, 2000) (quoting Jackson v. Beech, 636 F.2d 831, 836 (D.C. Cir. 1980)). In the “‘absence of any request to set aside the default or suggestion by the defendant that it has a meritorious defense,' it is clear that the standard for default judgment has been satisfied.” Int'l Painters & Allied Trades Indus. Pension Fund v. Auxier Drywall, LLC, 531 F.Supp.2d 56, 57 (D.D.C. 2008) (quoting Gutierrez, 2000 WL 331721, at *1).

         To obtain a default judgment in such an action, plaintiffs must establish their claims “by evidence satisfactory to the court.” 28 U.S.C. § 1608(e). Those who are successful may then recover damages by showing “that the projected consequences are reasonably certain (i.e., more likely than not) to occur, and [proving] the amount of damages by a reasonable estimate.” Fraenkel v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 892 F.3d 348, 353 (D.C. Cir. 2018) (quoting Hill v. Republic of Iraq, 328 F.3d 680, 684 (D.C. Cir. 2003)). While these requirements create “some protection against an unfounded default judgment, ” plaintiffs need not produce “more or different evidence than [a court] would ordinarily receive; indeed, the quantum and quality of evidence that might satisfy a court can be less than that normally required.” Id. (alteration in original) (quoting Owens v. Republic of Sudan, 864 F.3d 751, 785 (D.C. Cir. 2017)). In any event, when a foreign state fails to make an appearance, the court must still determine that an exception to immunity applies and that the plaintiff has a sufficient legal and factual basis for his claims. See Jerez v. Republic of Cuba, 777 F.Supp.2d 6, 18-19 (D.D.C. 2011).

         III. Analysis

         The Court will proceed in three steps. It begins by addressing jurisdictional prerequisites, then evaluates Defendants' liability, and finishes by determining appropriate damage awards.

         A. Jurisdiction

         Foreign states are generally immune from suit in U.S. federal court. See 28 U.S.C. § 1604. “[T]he FSIA [is] the sole basis for obtaining jurisdiction over a foreign state in federal court, ” Argentine Republic v. Amerada Hess Shipping Corp., 488 U.S. 428, 439 (1989), and it grants “a federal district court . . . personal and subject matter jurisdiction over a foreign entity in certain circumstances.” Owens v. Republic of Sudan, 826 F.Supp.2d 128, 148 (D.D.C. 2011). 1.Subject-Matter Jurisdiction Those circumstances are codified in the FSIA. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1330(a), 1604. Relevant here is § 1605A, the so-called “terrorism exception.” See Fraenkel, 892 F.3d at 352. Plaintiffs may establish subject-matter jurisdiction under this exception by showing that (a) the foreign state lacks immunity and (b) their claim may be heard in a U.S. court. See 28 U.S.C. § 1605A(a)(1)-(2).

         a. No Immunity

         The terrorism exception provides that “[a] foreign state shall not be immune from the jurisdiction” of U.S. courts where (1) “money damages are sought” (2) “against a foreign state” for (3) “personal injury or death” that (4) “was caused” (5) “by an act of torture, . . . hostage taking, or the provision of material support or resources for such an act.” Id at § 1605A(a)(1); see also Oveissi v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 879 F.Supp.2d 44, 51 (D.D.C. 2012) (quoting this language); Wultz v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 864 F.Supp.2d 24, 32 (D.D.C. 2012) (same).

         Both Plaintiffs' claims meet all five conditions. First, they seek only money damages. See ECF No. 17 (Motion Default Judgment) at 2. Second, they lodge their claim against Iran and its “Ministries, Agencies, and Instrumentalities.” Compl. at 1. Third, Plaintiffs allege extensive personal injuries including physical harm and mental anguish. Id., ¶¶ 16-64. Fourth, the IRGC caused Plaintiffs' injuries. See Abedini Decl., ¶ 18 (naming IRGC as perpetrator); see also Schertzman Cohen v. Islamic Republic of Iran, No. 17-1214, 2019 WL 3037868, at *3 (D.D.C. July 11, 2019) (holding IRGC “is part of the Iranian government”). Fifth, and finally, Iran both (i) tortured Abedini and (ii) took him hostage within the meaning of the FSIA, as the Court now explains in more detail.

         i. Torture

         The FSIA adopts the definition of “torture” found in Section 3 of the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991. See 28 U.S.C. § 1605(h)(7) (citing id. § 1350 note (TVPA)). The TVPA, in turn, defines “torture” as:

any act, directed against an individual in the offender's custody or physical control, by which severe pain or suffering[, ] . . . whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on that individual for such purposes as obtaining from that individual or a third person information or a confession, punishing that individual[, ] . . . intimidating or coercing that individual or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind.

TVPA § 3(a)(1).

         This definition encompasses “prolonged mental harm” caused by threats of immediate bodily injury, death threats, and threats against family members. Id. § 3(a)(2)(A)-(D). When identifying what conduct constitutes torture, our Circuit uses two measures: (1) “the degree of pain and suffering that the alleged torturer intended to, and actually did, inflict upon the victim”; and (2) the extent to which the “production of pain and suffering is purposive.” Price v. Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, 294 F.3d 82, 93 (D.C. Cir. 2002) (Price I).

         On step one, acts of torture must be “sufficiently extreme and outrageous to warrant . . . universal condemnation.” Id. at 92. The IRGC certainly inflicted such severe mental and physical pain and suffering upon Abedini. See, e.g., id. at 92-93 (“‘[T]orture . . . is usually reserved for extreme, deliberate and unusually cruel practices, for example, sustained systematic beating, application of electric currents to sensitive parts of the body, and tying up or hanging in positions that cause extreme pain.' . . . The more intense, lasting, or heinous the agony, the more likely it is to be torture.”) (quoting S. Exec. Rep. No. 101-30, at 14 (1990)); Azadeh v. Islamic Republic of Iran, No. 16-1467, 2018 WL 4232913, at *11-12 (D.D.C. Sept. 5, 2018) (finding Iranian actors tortured plaintiff at Evin Prison by confining her in small cell with poor light and toilet facilities, denying her medical care, and endlessly interrogating and threatening her each day); Daliberti v. Republic of Iraq, 146 F.Supp.2d 19, 25 (D.D.C. 2001) (finding torture where plaintiff was incarcerated with inadequate sanitary facilities and no medical care).

         Throughout his confinement, Iranian guards repeatedly beat, shocked, and whipped Abedini. See Default J. Memo at 5-7. They kept him in “stress positions” - hung from the ceiling by handcuffs, id. at 7, and forced into a “drawer” with “no space to move.” Id. at 10. He was repeatedly denied medical treatment and consequently suffered from severe physical ailments. Id. at 9, 14, 17. The IRGC also tormented Abedini, ordering his execution shortly after his confinement and frequently taunting him about his impending death. Id. at 5, 18. Every day he woke up not knowing when or how he might be executed. Id. Abedini suffered through nearly three and a half years of systematic abuse. The IRGC's actions are undoubtedly “extreme and outrageous” conduct amounting to torture under the FSIA.

         Second, to constitute torture, conduct must be “intentional and malicious, ” “not merely haphazard.” Price I, 294 F.3d at 93. The Court has no difficulty concluding that the IRGC deliberately and purposefully abused Abedini while he was in captivity. See Daliberti, 146 F.Supp.2d at 25 (finding intentional torture where plaintiff was threatened for refusing to give false confession). Like in Daliberti, Defendants wanted Abedini to falsely confess that he was a CIA spy “on a mission to overthrow the Iranian government.” Default J. Memo at 5. When he refused, the guards beat him. Id. at 6-7. Likewise, guards punished him for refusing to ...

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