Today I was reading through my issue of the Economist, and, well this article really disturbed my perception of the American justice system even more:
The legal battle
Hitting where it hurts
Oct 4th 2001 | NEW YORK
From The Economist print edition
The American taxpayer may end up paying Osama bin Laden's legal bills
AMERICA is a country of laws, the refrain goes; no less is it a country of lawyers. One battle in the war against terrorism will end up being fought in the courtroom—with the target being Osama bin Laden, but the damages perhaps being met by the Treasury.
After other airline disasters, lawyers have won enormous damages from the carriers on behalf of the victims' families. In the recent tragedy, however, that approach seems less promising. The two carriers whose flights were hijacked, United and American, have both been granted a cap on their legal liability in the bail-out package hurriedly passed by Congress after the disaster.
The alleged hijacker-in-chief, Mr bin Laden, on the other hand, has no such legal protection. More important, neither do the states deemed to have supported him.
Under American law, foreign states are immune from being sued. But a 1996 law designed to punish state sponsors of terrorism said that countries named by the State Department as supporters of terrorism are not immune. These include Iraq, which some people reckon is one of Mr bin Laden's backers, but not (yet) Afghanistan, whose ruling regime has never been officially recognised by the United States.
In the past, suits against sponsors of terrorism have led to large awards. In 1998 Stephen Flatow sued the government of Iran, on the ground that his daughter was the victim of a bomb planted by a Palestinian group that received money and arms from the Iranians. Iran refused to contest the case, but, using State Department sources to prove a link between the Iranians and the killers, Mr Flatow won in court. He was awarded more than $200m in punitive damages (according to the judgment, a sum three times the amount Iran spends each year on terrorist activities). The judge also awarded him large compensatory damages of $26m.
Mr Flatow's lawyers tried to collect the money by going after Iranian assets frozen in America, such as the former Iranian embassy in Washington, DC. But the State Department considered these properties immune from seizure, and argued that handing them over at the behest of an American court would not only violate the principles of international diplomacy but also endanger American property abroad.
In the end, to avoid the embarrassment of having to defend Iranian assets from a wronged American citizen, Congress and the Clinton administration hit on a compromise. Tacked on to a bill that addressed domestic violence, slavery and teenage suicide was a provision that directed the Treasury to pay out compensatory damages (but not punitive ones) to victims of terrorism who filed suit within a certain period of time. The provision stipulated that the federal government must then try to get Iran to pay the money back as soon as possible.
As a result, Mr Flatow got $26m. Others who had filed suit at the right time also received generous sums. Terry Anderson and Thomas Sutherland, who had been held hostage in Lebanon, won $41m and $53m respectively. That works out at about $10,000 per day in captivity, which has become the going rate in the courts.
In all, the Treasury has so far paid out more than $200m. Efforts to recover this from Iran cannot be made until Iran and the United States resume diplomatic relations, and even then the prospect seems dim. For its part, Iran has recently passed a law that allows Iranian victims of “American interference” to sue the American government in Iranian courts.
Last month's attacks will undoubtedly spur similar suits, should it emerge that they had a state sponsor. Lee Kreindler, a New York lawyer, says that some of the families of those killed in the World Trade Centre and on the hijacked airliners have shown interest. He hopes that some of the financial assets frozen by President Bush could pay for the damages. But unfreezing such assets could make things even trickier for American diplomacy. The point of holding frozen assets is to use them as leverage against the foreign regime, not to give them away.
If Congress wanted the Treasury to pick up the bill again, it would have to pass another law similar to last year's. Having once made such a concession, Congress may find it difficult to deny requests from the new victims for equal treatment. Indeed, similar requests are now in the offing. Crowell & Moring, the Washington, DC, firm whose lawyers prosecuted the lion's share of the cases against Iran, is now lobbying hard to extend last year's law to cover victims of terrorism in Kenya and the Middle East allegedly connected to Mr bin Laden. Stuart Newberger, a partner on the firm's terrorism team, believes the government can be swayed. “Both the Bush administration and Congress are very supportive of this idea,” he says.
The Treasury may find itself writing many more cheques if the courts are to protect both these victims' claims and America's diplomatic manoeuvring. Richard Mosk, a judge on the Iran-US Claims Tribunal at The Hague, argues that such lawsuits amount to “picking our own pocket”, and could cost the government millions while deterring terrorism not a jot. That is unlikely to stop the lawyers.
Maybe people here were aware of this likely outcome - I was not - but I thought I'd share this IMO outrageous information. Have the American taxpayer pay not only for the damage done to the economy and airlines, but also for damages? The American government paying for someone else's crimes? Well, what's next? If someone mugs me (a German) in the street here in London, can I ask the Americans to compensate the emotional pain I suffered? After all, the American government is as guilty and involved in this hypothetical mugging as in the terrorist attacks, right (i.e. not at all)? This is just ridiculous!