Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Italian Foreign Ministry Asks Judge to Unfreeze Iranian Assets

Ariel David, The Associated Press:
The families of three Americans killed in Palestinian suicide bombings have accused the Italian government of siding with Iran in a legal battle to collect damages from the Islamic regime's assets in Italy. READ MORE

Relatives of the victims sued Iran under a U.S. federal law that allows them to seek damages from nations that sponsor international terrorism. The families accuse Iran of supporting Palestinian militant groups; American judges have so far awarded them more than half a billion dollars in damages.

As part of the families' efforts to collect the money, they have petitioned Italian courts, which froze Iranian Embassy assets held in accounts with the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro.

But in a closed hearing Tuesday, Italy's state lawyers joined Iran's legal representatives in a surprise request to unfreeze the assets and dismiss the case, lawyers for the Americans said.

"The (Italian) Foreign Ministry has formally intervened on behalf of the state of Iran, against the victims of terrorism," Anthony Shipman, a lawyer for the families of three victims, told The Associated Press.

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it "customarily reminds the competent court of the immunity from jurisdiction guaranteed to foreign embassies."

It reiterated Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini's "strongest condemnation of any direct or indirect activity in support of terrorism" and said Fini hoped "justice can run its course and families can receive their due compensation."

At the hearing, lawyers for Italy and Iran raised procedural objections to the freezing of the accounts and argued assets of a sovereign nation enjoy immunity from national laws.

Shipman said there is a precedent in the Italian courts to waive immunity protection in cases of human rights violations.

Judge Baldovino De Sensi is expected to rule on the objections next month.
"I'm very confused and distressed," said Stephen Flatow, of New Jersey, whose 20-year-old daughter, Alisa, was killed in a 1995 bus bombing in the Gaza Strip.

The other plaintiffs are relatives of Matthew Eisenfeld, 25, a rabbinical student from West Hartford, Conn., and Sara Duker, 22, of Teaneck, N.J., who died in a Feb. 25, 1996, bus bombing in Jerusalem that killed 22 others and wounded 80.

The Iranian Embassy in Rome did not return calls seeking comment. Iran has denied the charges brought against it in U.S. courts and has rejected as politically motivated rulings awarding damages to the victims.

Italy is Iran's biggest trading partner in Europe and has a strong presence in Iran's gas market through Italian oil and gas giant Eni SpA. About 800 Italians live or work in Iran, the ministry said.

However, the Italian government strongly condemned recent rhetoric by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called for Israel's destruction and described the Nazi Holocaust as a "myth."