Compensation for U.S. Iran Hostages Now Rests with Justice Department
Surprise language in omnibus spending bill requires appointment of a special master.
The Justice Department was taken by surprise by the inclusion in the fiscal 2016 omnibus spending bill of long-pending language to compensate the individuals and families of the 52 Americans taken hostage during the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Iran in 1979.
The provision, championed by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., working with attorneys for the victims and their survivors, took years to become law, in part because the State Department—which favored compensation of its kidnapped diplomats—was bound by the so-called Algiers Accords signed in 1981 under the Carter administration, which shielded the revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran from legal attack. Thirty-seven of the hostages are still living, according to news reports.
The plan to pay $10,000 per day of captivity funded not by U.S. taxpayers but by tapping a fund of fines paid by businesses that violated sanctions against Iran passed the Foreign Relations Committee in April. But it sat quietly until lawmakers—some angry at the recent nuclear accord with Iran—noted that the sanctions fund was flush with cash. So the language was inserted in the 2,200-page spending bill President Obama signed on Dec. 18—though reporters didn’t discover its inclusion until a week later.
“The 52 Americans victimized by the Iran hostage crisis experienced unimaginable fear, despair and torture while being held captive for 444 days,” Isakson said when the bill was signed. “The Iran hostages sacrificed mightily for our country, and I’m delighted that these brave men and women are finally getting some semblance of justice and closure for what they went through.”
The law’s provision, titled “Justice for United States Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Act,’’ requires the Attorney General, not later than 60 days after the date of the law’s enactment, to appoint a special master, with an initial term of 18 months, subject to renewal based on funds availability.
The Special Master will review claims by individuals who qualify as members of the class action, allowing one opportunity for an appeal hearing. Spouses and children of former hostages qualify for a $600,000 lump sum.
Payments are to be made within a year, and total costs are capped at $20 million per claim, or $35 million per family.
The master will be compensated from the sanctions fund at a rate not above the annual rate of basic pay for level IV of the Executive Schedule. And the special master may use no more than the equivalent of 5 full-time department personnel to assist him or her, costs for whom will be paid from the fund.
The new law also allows for compensation of victims of other attacks on U.S. personnel overseas, including the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Lebanon and the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa.
A Justice Department spokesman told Government Executive on Monday that the agency would have no comment because the act’s language is still being reviewed.
Tom Lankford, an Alexandria, Va.-based international lawyer who has worked for the surviving hostages and their families since 1999, told Government Executive he was pleased with the success, but said he had no idea how Justice would implement the law.
State Department spokeswoman Nicole Thompson said her agency welcomed the new law. “We continue to work within the State Department and with interagency partners on specific aspects of the implementation of this legislation.”