Marine veteran Amir Hekmati was brutally tortured during the 4½ years that the Iranian government held him as a hostage, he says in a lawsuit.
Hekmati was arrested in August 2011 after he traveled to Iran to visit his grandmother. He was released in January and now is suing the Iranian government in the hopes of getting compensation for the litany of abuses he says he endured.
For the first 17 months, Hekmati was kept in solitary confinement in a small cell where the Iranians whipped the bottoms of his feet, tased him in the kidney area, put him in stress positions for hours, hit him with batons, threw water on his floor to keep him from sleeping and kept a bright light on 24 hours a day to induce sensory deprivation, his lawsuit says.
“Mr. Hekmati’s captors would force him to take lithium and other addictive pills and then stop giving him the pills to invoke withdrawal symptoms,” the lawsuit says. “He was denied proper medical care and suffered severe malnutrition.”
His interrogators also used psychological torture, according to the lawsuit. At one point, they told him that his sister had been in a serious car crash but he could not call his family unless he confessed to being a spy for the CIA.
In December 2011, the Iranians took Hekamti to a hotel and said they would release him if he agreed to appear on an “internal training video,” the lawsuit says. He initially refused, but when the Iranians threatened to put him back into solitary confinement, he agreed. The Iranians broadcast the video on state television as proof that Hekmati was a spy and threw him back into solitary confinement anyway.
Later, an Iranian court sentenced Hekmati to death for espionage, according to the lawsuit. He was subsequently re-sentenced to 10 years in prison for “cooperating with a hostile government, presumably due to his U.S. military service.”
After spending more time in solitary confinement, the Iranians moved Hekmati to another prison where the inmates were mostly “drug dealers and hardened criminals,” the lawsuit says.
“His conditions were even more brutal. His cell was infested with rats, which he had to kill himself using a broomstick. His skin was eaten by lice, fleas and bed bugs. He suffered from recurring lung infections and constant stomach problems due to malnutrition.”
Hekmati, who was a sergeant in the Marine Corps, continues to suffer from physical and psychological injuries stemming from his maltreatment, the lawsuit says.
Through his attorney Scott Gilbert, Hekmati declined an interview request from Marine Corps Times.
“He really has been trying to put his life back together as best he can and indeed it was really quite traumatic for him to relive these experiences to the extent he had to in order to help us put the complaint together," said Gilbert, who suspects Hekmati was singled out for torture because he had deployed to Afghanistan with the Marine Corps.
Hekmati has not yet specified how much money he is asking for in the lawsuit, Gilbert said. Countries like Iran have “sovereign immunity,” meaning they can be sued under only limited circumstances, but Gilbert said he believes that Hekmati is on firm legal footing.
“In this case, there is a federal statute, which is cited in the complaint, that eliminates sovereign immunity by any cases of hostage-taking, torture, etc.,” Gilbert said. “Iran is on the U.S. terrorist list. So they are not entitled to sovereign immunity under these circumstances — and that’s not a debatable issue. And Iran has been sued before.”
In April, the Supreme Court allowed families of the victims of Iranian terrorism to collect nearly $2 billion in frozen funds from an Iranian bank. The money will go toward the families of the service members killed in the 1983 attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut, the 1996 attack on the Khobar Towers housing complex in Saudi Arabia, and other attacks.
Separately, Congress passed a law in December that allows funds seized from a French bank that did business with Iran to compensate the hostages held for more than a year when the Iranians stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979.
Both of those victories only came after long years of legal battles, and Gilbert acknowledges that Hekmati’s lawsuit will also take time.
In the past, the U.S. government has proved to be a major obstacle to victims of Iranian terrorism being compensated, said Annette Livingston.
Livingston’s brother, Marine Sgt. Paul Lewis, was held hostage when the Iranians overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The incident inspired her husband to join the Marine Corps, but Cpl. Joel Livingston was killed in the Beirut barracks bombing.
During the decades it took to get Iran to pay compensation to terrorism victims, the hardest part was fighting with the U.S. government, Livingston said.
“Every step, it seems, it took a legislative step,” she told Marine Corps Times. “I’m hoping that we paved the way for other people, like him [Hekmati], but there were certain people in the Congress and the Senate that were just flat against us.”
Livingston said she is also outraged that Iran enjoys so many rights. The Iranians have until later this month to ask the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision awarding money to terrorism victims, she said.
“They are given the same rights as American citizens,” she said. “I, just in my own personal view, find that so wrong.”
Hekmati should not have to file a lawsuit to receive compensation for being tortured, said Livingston, who feels the U.S. government failed to support her husband and brother.
“Even though we won, and it took money away from Iran, I don’t know that I would do it again,” she said.