In a victory for the ideas that hostages should be compensated and hostage-taking by nation-states should be punished and deterred, WilmerHale won a $180 million federal court judgment on Nov. 22, 2019 against Iran on behalf of Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and his family.
The damages resulted from Mr. Rezaian’s unjustified arrest and 544-day imprisonment and torture at the hands of Iranian authorities in a case that attracted worldwide headlines and condemnation.
US District Judge Richard J. Leon concluded in his opinion that Mr. Rezaian, his mother, Mary, and brother, Ali, were together entitled to $30 million in compensatory damages for pain and suffering and economic losses.
The court imposed an additional $150 million in punitive damages intended to punish the Iranian government and deter it from similar future actions. “Holding a man hostage and torturing him to gain leverage in negotiations with the United States is outrageous, deserving of punishment, and surely in need of deterrence,” Judge Leon wrote.
Although Iran failed to respond to the October 2016 lawsuit Rezaian and his family filed under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, Judge Leon held an evidentiary hearing in Iran’s absence, heard live testimony from plaintiffs and their experts, and conducted the cross examinations himself.
Mr. Rezaian’s testimony was particularly compelling, as he recounted the harrowing details of his arrest and imprisonment. As Judge Leon wrote in dramatic detail in his opinion, Mr. Rezaian was arrested at gunpoint as he and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, headed to his mother-in-law’s birthday party.
Mr. Rezaian, falsely accused of espionage, was imprisoned in the notorious Evin Prison where he was first held in solitary confinement in an eight-foot by four-foot cell for 49 days. He was fed so poorly he lost 40 pounds in his first 40 days of confinement.
His health deteriorated as he developed several serious infections and his Iranian captors withheld medical treatment and medication. He was routinely interrogated, threatened with summary execution and dismemberment, and subjected to psychological torture and physical abuse. His captors threatened to harm his wife as well. Succumbing to the relentless pressure, he eventually gave a forced confession.
His criminal trial in Iran was a travesty and a sham, with no evidence provided by either side and his court-appointed lawyer only allowed to meet with him in the Iranian judge’s presence. The judge threatened him with a death sentence before any evidence was heard. Iranian media reported the he was convicted and sentenced, though no official judgment and sentence were ever rendered.
Instead, every indication was that Mr. Rezaian was a hostage and bargaining chip to be traded by the Iranian government for Iranian nationals in American custody.
Mr. Rezaian was eventually released in January 2016 and driven to the airport. There, Iranian authorities tried to get him to board a plane and leave his wife and mother behind. He refused. After many hours, his family was permitted to join him and they left the country, arriving in Landstuhl, Germany where Mr. Rezaian finally received proper medical attention.
Judge Leon detailed the health problems Mr. Rezaian continues to experience because of his ordeal. The judge further noted: “Jason's experience also irrevocably altered his relationships with family members…. Yeganeh can no longer return to the country where she grew up and where her parents still live…. Mary and Ali Rezaian had their lives upended by Jason's detention, and all must now live with the memories of the turbulent time period.”
In sharp contrast with Iran’s sham legal proceedings, Judge Leon carefully balanced the damages amounts requested by the plaintiffs against relevant precedents, sometimes determining that Mr. Rezaian was entitled under the law to less than he requested.
Still, the amount of the final judgment is cause for celebration. WilmerHale partner David Bowker noted that “it is especially gratifying for Jason and his family that the court responded to Iran’s hostage-taking and other human rights abuses, not simply by awarding damages for the injuries suffered, but also by affording due process of law, holding a public trial in open court, and delivering a powerful opinion based on the law and the facts. To meet Iran’s injustice with the rule of law is part of what motivated Jason and his family to bring this case. They feel vindicated by the decision.”
Given the decades of hostility between the US and Iran, the Iranian government will refuse to pay the judgment voluntarily. Instead, the judgment will have to be enforced partially through the Justice for Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund, established by Congress and funded with sanctions proceeds, and perhaps also through efforts to locate and attach hidden Iranian assets here and abroad. Mr. Rezaian and his family also see value in the victory and the opinion, which together provide a measure of justice that will help them turn the page on this difficult chapter.
Mr. Bowker was the lead counsel and Robert Kimmitt provided key strategic guidance and support. Senior Associates Maury Riggan, Justin Baxenberg, and Derek Woodman shouldered huge responsibility on the papers and at the evidentiary hearing, assisted by Senior Paralegal Nancy Tillotson and Legal Secretary Melody Cook. Former counsels Robert McKeehan and Jessica Leinwand also contributed prior to their departures.
Judge Leon’s opinion was widely covered by the news media including, of course, The Washington Post where Mr. Rezaian writes for the Global Opinions section.