Family of US-Lebanese citizen sues Iran over his jailing and death

Amer Fakhoury's wife and daughters say inhumane detention ordered by Iran-backed Hezbollah caused his terminal cancer

In this May 2019 file photo provided by Guila Fakhoury, her father Amer Fakhoury, second right, gathers with family members at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H. U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, of New Hampshire, is sponsoring a bill, which she is expected to introduce Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, along with Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, to ban visas and freeze assets of Lebanese officials involved in the detention of Amer Fakhoury. Fakhoury, a restaurant owner in Dover, New Hampshire, who became a U.S. citizen last year,  has been jailed since Sept. 12, 2019, in his native country and has been hospitalized with stage 4 lymphoma. (Guila Fakhoury via AP, File)

Relatives of a US citizen who was imprisoned for seven months in Lebanon then died of cancer within months of his release are suing Iran over what they allege was his unjust detention and inhumane treatment that triggered his terminal disease.

Amer Fakhoury was imprisoned by Lebanese security forces from September 2019-March 2020, but his wife and children are arguing in US federal court in Washington that Iran and its Lebanese militant proxy Hezbollah are responsible because they "intentionally ordered, directed and caused the psychological and physical torture [and] abuse" of Fakhoury, who died aged 57 in August 2020.

"Iranian support has been foundational to Hezbollah since its emergence in the 1980s," the 28-page lawsuit notes, referencing a recent State Department memo.

The lawsuit says Fakhoury developed cancer while being held under inhumane conditions in Lebanon, linking his cancer to the Epstein-Barr virus he caught while in detention.

“Our father was completely healthy before. He went to Lebanon at 225 pounds (102 kilograms) and came back 150 pounds (68kg). He obtained the Epstein Barr Virus at the Lebanese General Security prisons and because it went untreated for months under terrible conditions, it developed into lymphoma cancer which later took his life,” Zoya Fakhoury, one of his four daughters, told The National.

Asked why the lawsuit targets Iranian and not Lebanese authorities, she said: “because Iran controls Lebanon through Hezbollah.”

“We experienced first hand the corruption in the judicial system and how much Hezbollah influences every sector of the government," said Ms Fakhoury, co-founder of the Amer Fakhoury Foundation.

She anticipates additional measures under Congressional laws that will target Lebanese officials implicated in the detention.

Though he was never formally charged, Lebanese military officials had accused Fakhoury of working for the South Lebanon Army, a now-disbanded Israeli-backed Christian militia, two decades ago and alleged he tortured prisoners at the notorious Khiam military jail run.

Like thousands of SLA members, Fakhoury fled Lebanon when Israel withdrew in May 2000.

He entered Israel and shortly after migrated to the United States, where he opened a Lebanese restaurant in Dover, New Hampshire.

Fakhoury's decision to visit Lebanon after 19 years of self-exile followed assurances from the Lebanese presidency and the Lebanese army that he would be unharmed, the family said.

The family said that following the September 12, 2019 arrest, Lebanese President Michel Aoun told them it had been a Hezbollah decision.

They said Mr Aoun had told them that Wafic Safa, the head of Hezbollah's internal security agency, wanted him in prison.

Fakhoury was subsequently "brutally tortured by officials, employees and agents of Hezbollah,” the lawsuit reads.

“The extreme physical abuse inflicted upon Amer Fakhoury during his imprisonment and torture by Hezbollah greatly injured his health and destroyed his immune system, resulting in the terminal disease from which he subsequently died."

Fakhoury's family denies he was ever involved in acts of torture while working at the Khiam prison camp.

“His position at the Khiam facility was purely logistical. His duties included clerical and quartermaster work, supplying food and essentials to the equipment to the soldiers and prisoners stationed there,” the lawsuit read.

In similar lawsuits, US courts have ruled in favour of plaintiffs by ordering Iran to pay billions of dollars in damages.

But Iran never acknowledged or appeared at these cases. In the case of the Robert Levinson disappearance, Iran was ordered to pay more than $1.4 billion to the family.

"It should not surprise that the case of an American citizen held hostage by a designated Foreign Terrorist Group -- which is in turn supported by a designated State Sponsor of Terrorism -- should end up in federal court," said Matthew Levitt, director of the Reinhard Programme on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Hezbollah was designated as foreign terrorist organisation by the US in 1997, and Iran was named as state sponsor of terror by the US government in 1994.

Contacted by The National, the Lebanese General Security, Iran’s mission to the United Nations were not immediately available for comment.

Updated: October 6th 2021, 7:34 PM