A US judge has ordered Iran to pay damages of $1.46 billion to the family of a private investigator who became America’s longest-held civilian hostage before his death in custody.
Bob Levinson was snatched on Iran’s Kish Island in March 2007 during an investigation into the skimming of Iranian oil profits.
The former FBI agent was tortured at a secret location by his unknown kidnappers before his family learned this year that he had died.
The family said the ruling by a court in Washington DC was the “first step in the pursuit of justice” for Mr Levinson.
But the relatives of Mr Levinson, who was married with seven children and would have turned 72 this year, are likely to receive only a fraction of the $1.46bn US judge Timothy Kelly ordered.
Iran declined to take part in the civil action and the damages are set to come from a special fund established by the US government for victims of state-sponsored terrorism. The fund is financed by fines from companies who are penalised for breaking sanction rules.
The compensation ordered by US district judge Timothy Kelly amounts to more than the entire pot for nearly 8,000 successful claimants in the most recent round.
The US victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund has accepted more than 13,000 claims since 2017 and has paid out more than $3bn.
But individual claims are capped at $20 million and figures released for the most recent round suggest that victims receive less than six per cent of the amount claimed.
“We intend to find any and every avenue, and pursue all options, to seek justice for Robert Levinson," said the family in a statement.
Up until 2019, US courts have made awards of about $90bn for state-sponsored terrorism against countries including Iran, Sudan, North Korea and Syria, according to a congressional report. These include awards to the families of 241 US soldiers killed in the 1983 bombing of a military barracks in Beirut.
Judge Kelly said in his ruling that the $150m awarded each to Mr Levinson’s estate, his wife and children were not designed as compensation but “to award the victim an amount of money that will punish outrageous behaviour and deter such outrageous conduct in the future”.
He said that the kidnapping, torture and detention of Mr Levinson was “barbaric” and had caused the family immeasurable suffering. The judge added that the kidnap and torture of US citizens through the state or by paying militant groups was “part of a longstanding pattern and policy, making the need for deterrence clear”.
Mr Levinson’s family revealed in March that they had received information that made it clear he was dead. He was last known to be alive in 2011 because of photographs emailed by his captors showing him bound by chains and wearing an orange jumpsuit.
The photos and a video were accompanied by demands to the US suggesting Mr Levinson was being held by an unidentified terrorist group, but Judge Kelly ruled that Iran was responsible. The Iranians have refused to admit culpability for Mr Levinson’s captivity.
The court had heard in December that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was probably behind his imprisonment because of his investigation into state corruption.
He had travelled to Kish Island to question a contact over claims that Iranian officials were taking a cut from oil sales and hiding the money in overseas investment.
In a statement, Mr Levinson’s family said that he had been subjected to “unimaginable suffering” for more than 13 years.
“He was the greatest man we have ever known, and he should be alive today - home with his wife, children and grandchildren. Instead, he died in Iranian custody and our family will never be whole again.
“Until now, Iran has faced no consequences for its actions. Judge Kelly’s decision won’t bring Bob home, but we hope that it will serve as a warning against further hostage-taking by Iran.”