Appeals court rules against Navy veteran who lost $20 million after being imprisoned in Iran

This image provided by Amir Hekmati shows Hekmati when he was in the US Marine Corps in Baghdad, Iraq in May 2010. (Amir Hekmati)

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) – A federal appeals court has ruled against Michigan’s Amir Hekmati, who fought the revocation of a $20 million payment promised to him by a government fund for victims. state-sponsored terrorism.

Late last week, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld a lower court’s decision to dismiss Hekmati’s lawsuit seeking damages for the non-compliance by the fund with its payment obligations, claiming that the court had no jurisdiction to review the decisions of the fund’s special committee. Master.

Hekmati, a US Navy veteran from Flint, had applied for compensation from the federal fund after being imprisoned in Iran for 4½ years and released in 2016 under the Iran nuclear deal.

Hekmati’s claim for compensation, a US citizen, was initially approved by the fund’s special master, Kenneth Feinberg, in December 2018. But years later, Feinberg reversed his decision and said Hekmati does not was ineligible for the money after learning of FBI allegations that Hekmati had traveled to Iran not to visit his ailing grandmother as he had claimed, but to sell classified information to the Iranian government .

Hekmati vehemently denied the allegations and accused the FBI of “abusing its authority”. He has not been charged with any crime and his lawyers have pointed out in court documents that he was tortured and sentenced to death by the very government to whom he allegedly tried to sell information.

Hekmati sued the government for damages for the fund’s failure to meet its payment obligations. But first the U.S. Federal Claims Court and then the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals found that the statute at issue precluded judicial review of the Special Master’s decision and denied Hekmati’s claim. .

“We do not have the evidence that led Mr. Feinberg to conclude that Mr. Hekmati attempted to sell classified national security information to the Iranian government. Nor do we attempt to discern whether Mr. Feinberg properly reached that determination,” the judging panel wrote.

“All we conclude is that the Court of Federal Claims cannot review the Special Master’s decision because Congress has not given it jurisdiction to do so.”

Hekmati’s attorney, Scott Gilbert, said he and his client were disappointed with the Federal Circuit’s decision, noting it was “purely procedural.” He left open Monday the possibility of an appeal.

“We are looking at all of our options. We pledge to reverse the shameful and unlawful actions of the Department of Justice in denying Amir Hekmati, a decorated sailor and former prisoner of the Iranian regime, the compensation he is owed under federal law,” Gilbert said.

“This is our DOJ at its worst, targeting and persecuting a victim with no factual or legal basis. The DOJ, in my opinion, is right there with the Revolutionary Guards, except the DOJ is doing it behind their desk.

The circuit panel, Judges Alan Lourie, William Bryson and Tiffany Cunningham, heard arguments in the case in February.

Hekmati’s lawyer, Emily Grim, had argued that her claim was not ruled out because she was not challenging the compensation decision itself, but rather a “programmatic challenge” to enforce the settlement agreement. payment of money.

Grim told the appeal committee that the government’s review of Hekmati’s decision violated the fund’s licensing law, noting that it stipulated that decisions of a special master were “final and not reviewable”. . She also said the review was premature, coming years after the original award and at least 11 months after the fund received information from the US Department of Justice that Feinberg later cited as the basis for its review.

Lawyer representing the government, Shari Rose, told the panel during oral argument that Hekmati’s case presented both the Special Captain and the Department of Justice with “uncharted waters” after learning there was a possible -have had a “fraud-based” eligibility determination.

The information at issue was classified, so the Justice Department had to create a declassified record to provide to Feinberg and Hekmati, Rose said to explain the delay.

In its opinion, the appeals panel noted that the statute at issue showed that Congress intended to bar judicial review of all decisions made by the Special Master regarding compensation by the U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund, and that Feinberg’s reconsideration decision constituted such a decision.

The judges rejected Hekmati’s argument that the reconsideration itself was procedurally invalid and did not occur within a reasonable time. They noted that these were “unique” circumstances in which Feinberg was considering new evidence involving allegations of fraud that needed to be declassified, concluding that his decision had been rendered within a “reasonable” time.

“Thus, the reconsideration decision was a valid exercise of the Fund’s inherent authority to reconsider its decisions,” the panel wrote.

Background to the case

Feinberg revoked Hekmati’s award from the fund two years ago in January 2020, saying new information he had reviewed supported his conclusion that the “main purpose” of Hekmati’s trip to Iran was to sell goods. classified US national security information to Iran.

Feinberg cited partially redacted summaries of FBI interviews with Hekmati and an unsigned document claiming that Hekmati had accessed classified documents on Iran in his role as an intelligence analyst for a US contractor in Afghanistan.

The same document said Hekmati quit his job as a contractor after a month or two, and alleged that four independent and unnamed sources claimed he had approached Iranian officials to offer to sell them classified information, according to the sources. court records.

Feinberg concluded that Hekmati made misrepresentations in its application to the fund and, therefore, was ineligible for payment. The Special Master then held a review hearing to hear Hekmati’s testimony in April 2020 in support of his challenge, but issued a final decision in December 2020 upholding his removal.

Hekmati’s lawyers argued in court records that the reconsideration was ‘unlawful’ and unsupported by facts, pointing out that they presented Feinberg with 379 pages of evidence and hours of Hekmati’s sworn testimony to contradict the Department of Justice’s allegations.

This evidence included email correspondence from Hekmati with his mother and others showing that he intended to visit family in Iran long before he learned of the new job opportunity in Afghanistan.

Hekmati and his lawyers also pointed out that all Iran-related documents he reviewed in his position fell within his professional responsibilities and security credentials and did so openly, without any concerns expressed by his supervisors.

Hekmati’s lawyers noted that he had already quit his job when he traveled to Iran and was under no obligation to tell his former colleagues about his trip. The son of Iranian immigrants, he stayed there with family members and never approached Iranian officials or tried to sell government secrets, Hekmati said.

Hekmati was arrested during his trip to Iran in 2011 and sentenced to death after the Iranians accused him of spying for the Central Intelligence Agency. Iran’s Supreme Court overturned the sentence, but later found him guilty of “cooperating with hostile governments” and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.

While in detention, Hekmati received widespread support from human rights groups and US officials, including then-Secretary of State John Kerry and then-Vice President Joe Biden, who met Hekmati’s family in 2015 while visiting Michigan.

US officials have repeatedly denied Hekmati was a spy, and President Barack Obama has demanded his release. Hekmati was released in 2016 along with other US citizens, including the Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian.

(c) 2022 The Detroit News

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