Family of slain Md. sailor wins lawsuit against Iran

$321 million awarded

Hezbollah hijackers killed Navy diver in 1985

April 20, 2002|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

A federal judge awarded more than $321 million in damages yesterday to the family of a young Navy diver from Maryland murdered in 1985 by Hezbollah hijackers backed by Iran.

The ruling by Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson of the U.S. District Court in Washington will allow Richard and Patricia Stethem, parents of Robert D. Stethem, and their three surviving children to collect $21.4 million in compensatory damages directly from the U.S. Treasury.

The U.S. government will then have a claim for that amount against frozen assets of Iran in this country, under a law passed by Congress two years ago. The Stethems were also awarded $300 million in punitive damages, which will not be advanced by the Treasury and will be very difficult to collect, experts say.

The image of the body of Stethem, 23, being thrown onto the runway of the Beirut airport became an indelible symbol of terrorist brutality 17 years ago. But in light of the nation's current war on terror, his family's legal case against Iran has taken on new significance.

The alleged mastermind of the hijacking, Imad Fayez Mugniyah, remains on the FBI's list of most-wanted terrorists. President Bush recently named Iran part of an "axis of evil" of rogue states. Hezbollah, or "Party of God," a Shiite Muslim group based in Lebanon, continues to fire rockets into Israel.

The Stethems and Shale D. Stiller, the Baltimore attorney who represented them, say they hope their verdict and similar suits will discourage Iran from backing terror.

"We're just happy this judgment has come down," said Richard Stethem, 66, a retired Defense Department employee who served 25 years in the Navy. "We hope it hurts Iran a little bit. They've been involved in terrorism so long. Maybe it will make Iran think twice."

Patrick L. Clawson, an expert on Iran at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who testified at the trial, said such verdicts might have influence.

"Iran hasn't targeted Americans in recent years," he said. "That's because of fear of U.S. retaliation, and these lawsuits are part of that retaliation."

But other specialists say that for complicated legal reasons, it is doubtful that Iran will ever have to pay. They say such lawsuits are satisfying for the victims but unlikely to sway terrorist groups or their sponsors.

"I don't think lawsuits have a lot of weight in changing policies," said Judith Kipper, a specialist on Middle Eastern politics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "The Iranians will look at it as interference in their internal affairs - as once again, the U.S. plotting against them."

Jackson, best known for handling the Microsoft antitrust case, awarded $5 million each to Stethem's father and mother; $3 million each to his sister and two brothers, both also Navy veterans; and $2.4 million to Stethem's estate.

Noting wrenching testimony about the Stethems' suffering, Jackson wrote that each "continues to mourn [Robert's] death on a daily basis." Of the hijackers, he wrote: "The hostage-taking, torture and killing of innocent non-belligerents for political ends constitutes unconscionable conduct in any civilized society."

As in similar lawsuits, the Iranian government never responded and sent no representative to the October trial.

Jackson's ruling also covers a separate lawsuit filed by six other Navy divers who survived the hijacking of TWA Flight 847. It awards $7.8 million in compensatory damages to them and includes them in the $300 million punitive award. But because their lawsuit was not covered by Congress' enabling legislation, they will not be able to collect anything from the U.S. Treasury, Stiller said.

In June 1985, Stethem was part of a Navy team repairing an underwater sewer line at a military installation in Greece. He boarded Flight 847 in Athens on the first leg of a trip home.

Two Hezbollah terrorists armed with a pistol and hand grenades hijacked the plane, beginning a nightmarish 17 days during which the pilot was forced to shuttle between Beirut and Algiers.

Passengers were threatened and beaten and spent days in the sweltering plane, with little food and overflowing toilets. Some were later taken off the plane and held hostage, though all were released.

Stethem and a fellow diver, Clinton Suggs, were singled out for particularly brutal treatment after the hijackers saw their Navy identification cards. Other passengers watched the terrorists - called "Crazy" and "Hitler" by the flight crew - severely beat Stethem with a seat armrest. One hijacker yelled periodically, "One American must die!"

About 15 hours after the plane was seized, Stethem was shot in the head and his body dropped on the runway, a spectacle shown repeatedly on television.

Watching the coverage at the family home in Waldorf, besieged around the clock by news crews, the Stethems got their first hint their son might be dead. Kenneth Stethem recognized the shirt on the corpse on the tarmac as one he had given to his younger brother.

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