WASHINGTON - A federal judge on Friday ordered the government of Iran to pay Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and his family $180 million in damages for his 18-month detention during U.S.-Iran nuclear talks in 2014, saying it was needed to deter future taking of American hostages.
Rezaian, then The Post's Tehran-based correspondent, was seized July 22, 2014. He and his newlywed wife were arrested; placed separately in solitary confinement; and threatened with execution, physical mutilation and dismemberment, his family testified in federal court in Washington earlier this year. He spent 544 days in custody; his wife was released after two months.
U.S. District Judge Richard Leon of Washington entered a default judgment against Iran, which by its custom did not answer the lawsuit, following a two-day evidentiary hearing in January.
The court ordered Iran to pay Rezaian $23.8 million in compensatory damages for pain, suffering and economic losses; his brother Ali $2.7 million and their mother, Mary, $3.1 million for similar claims; and the family $150 million in punitive damages.
"Holding a man hostage and torturing him to gain leverage in negotiations with the United States is outrageous, deserving of punishment, and surely in need of deterrence," Leon wrote in a 30-page opinion.
Rezaian was released with two other Americans in a prisoner swap completed Jan. 16, 2016, the day the nuclear pact was implemented. In exchange, seven Iranians charged or imprisoned on sanctions violations won U.S. grants of clemency. Rezaian's wife, Yeganeh Rezaian, had been released separately and is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Rezaian's attorney David Bowker said the family had sought $44 million in compensatory damages and $1 billion in punitive damages to force Iranian authorities "to recalculate the costs and benefits" of using hostages and terrorism as tools of diplomatic leverage.
Rezaian was held as a bargaining chip, and he and his family were "irreparably injured" for the express purpose "of trading him for concessions by the United States" in multinational talks leading to a historic agreement limiting Iran's nuclear program, Bowker argued in court.
The ruling comes as U.S.-Iran relations, never friendly since the Iranian revolution of 40 years ago, have been on a recent downward spiral. After withdrawing last year from the landmark 2015 nucleal deal, the Trump administration has escalated devastating sanctions against Iran's economy. The regime remains defiant, however, scaling back its commitments.
Tensions also have grown over shipping in the Persian Gulf, with Iran shooting down an unmanned drone and Washington blaming Tehran for missiles that struck oil facilities in Saudi Arabia.
On Friday, the Treasury Department added Iran's information minister to its sanctions list, citing his role in cutting internet access amid protests over the end of fuel subsidies. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has urged protestors to send videos and photos documenting the crackdown. In a tweet, Pompeo vowed to "expose and sanction the abuses."
The Rezaians filed the lawsuit in October 2016 and asked the court in June 2017 to enter a default judgment and monetary penalties after Iran did not respond.
The Rezaian lawsuit lists as co-defendants the Islamic Republic of Iran and the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The lawsuit was brought under a "terrorism exception" to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a law that generally bars U.S. citizens from suing foreign governments in domestic courts except for circumstances including cases of terrorist acts, torture or hostage-taking by nations designated by the State Department as state sponsors of terrorism.
While federal courts have entered default judgments totaling about $46 billion for Iranian terrorism victims since 1996, collecting for many has been difficult, with U.S. plaintiffs able to track down only roughly 10% of that amount in frozen Iranian assets.
A smaller U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund is supported by fines paid by sanctions violators and is swamped by claimants.
Leon in a January hearing said the family's damages claim "sounds like it's 98 percent symbolic" but questioned if they believed they could claw back a portion of $1.7 billion in seized Iranian assets released in 2016.
Bowker said such a solution posed a political question "beyond our reach" but added: "We went into this with our eyes open . . . knowing we might not see a penny."
He said a large judgment would spur other law firms with past success at hunting down foreign assets to attempt "to change the calculus" for state sponsors of terrorism.
The Rezaian family's lawsuit cited statements by Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the commander of Iran's Basij Force, an internal paramilitary security force, linking Rezaian's release to the U.S. payment of roughly $1.7 billion to Iran in the nuclear deal, comprising frozen Iranian deposits and interest accrued on money held for U.S. arms purchases that were interrupted after Iran's 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
Similar statements were made by Iran's culture minister and by a hard-line member of parliament.
Rezaian was tried and convicted on espionage and related charges, according to Iranian state media accounts, although the government did not officially disclose specifics of his trial or sentence. The family's lawsuit linked key moments in the nuclear negotiations to Rezaian's movements through the Iranian judicial system.
Rezaian was The Post's correspondent in Tehran from 2012 to 2016 and is now a writer for its Global Opinions section.
This article was written by Spencer S. Hsu and Carol Morello, reporters for The Washington Post.