Judge rules for four Americans in Houthi torture case

State sponsor Iran is found responsible for kidnap and torture of victims

Pro-Houthi Yemenis chant slogans during a rally in Sanaa, Yemen. EPA

Four Americans kidnapped by Houthi rebels in Yemen are set for a multimillion-dollar payout after a successful legal claim against the group’s state sponsors, Iran.

The four Americans were kidnapped by the Houthis in 2015 but sued Iran for about $700 million in damages for providing “material support” to the group to snatch and torture them.

Iran — in line with previous legal action brought in the US — did not respond to legal papers delivered last year by lawyers representing the former hostages.

In Washington, US judge Randolph Moss on Friday ruled in favour of the four victims and 26 of their family members.

Another hearing will decide the level of damages that they are to be awarded. The group is expected to claim a fraction of the final award from a state-backed pot for victims of terrorism, funded in part from penalties paid by sanctions-busters in the US.

The four victims — journalist Casey Coombs, contractors Scott Darden and Haisam Farran, and English teacher Wallead Luqman — were all held and tortured at centres including the National Security Bureau, in the capital Sanaa.

Mr Luqman was held the longest, for about 19 months, while Mr Coombs was beaten so badly by fellow inmates with the encouragement of his warders that his injuries were likened to a high-speed motorcycle crash.

The court found that Iran “provided the training and political backing necessary to enable and to embolden the Houthis to target and to kidnap Americans and to negotiate for their release".

It added that Iran’s support was a “substantial factor” in taking the four men hostage.

“Iran also encourages their proxies to kidnap Americans,” said the ruling. “That one of Iran’s proxies acted to abduct and detain Americans is not only a reasonably foreseeable natural consequence, but a desired result of Iran’s training and directives.”

Despite Iran’s failure to contest the case, the men still had to show they were victims of abuse at the hands of Iranian proxies to secure judgment in the case.

The four detailed horrific treatment that included beatings as well as long periods of questioning and threats to their lives. Mr Darden told the court that one of his interrogators threatened to have his son murdered in Dubai, where he lived.

Mr Coombs, who was in the country covering the conflict as a journalist, said that guards entered his room at random times, blindfolded him and accused him of “being everything from a member of Al Qaeda to a CIA spy”.

After his beating in 2015, he was taken to hospital with one of the other men, Mr Farran, who had suffered a heart attack. Mr Farran said Mr Coombs was “laid out on a wooden stretcher with shackles on both his hands and feet … screaming in pain from what appeared to be back injuries”.

The men also claimed they were used as bargaining chips by Houthi authorities. Mr Farran said that he heard one guard saying in Arabic that the Saudi-led coalition would not attack the prison because “the American dogs are with us as hostages”.

Kevin Hoffman, a lawyer for the four men, said: “We are grateful for the court’s continued thoughtful approach to these important cases.

“Unfortunately, our evidence also showed that Iran’s support to the Houthis is accelerating, despite ongoing international pressure.”

Two other Americans, businessman Mikael Gidada and former aid worker Sandra Loli, are also suing Iran through Virginia law firm Singer Davis.

The Americans are able to sue Iran as it is one of four countries currently designated by the US as a state sponsor of terrorism — along with Cuba, North Korea and Syria — where normal immunity for nations does not apply.

Updated: March 14, 2022, 4:24 PM