US Court Orders Iran To Pay $1.4 BN in Damages To Missing Former FBI Agent’s Family

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Moshiuzzaman holds a 2:1 LL.B degree from BPP University (UK). He is currently pursuing the CFA chartership and working as an independent legal researcher at the American Society of International Law (ASIL)

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The United States District Court for the District of Columbia ordered Iran to pay in total $1.45 bn to the Levinson family in punitive damages ($1.35 bn) and for compensatory kidnapping charges ($107 m) over missing former FBI agent, Robert Levinson. 

Background – Who Is Robert Levinson and How Did He Disappear?

Robert Alan Levinson, aged 58, was a former Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI) agent who had been working for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), at the time of his disappearance. It was reported that he was arrested on the 9th of March 2007, in Kish Island, Iran, while allegedly on a mission for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He was also regarded as the longest-held American hostage in history. 

U.S. officials originally believed that Levinson had been captured by Iranian intelligence officials to be interrogated and used as a bargaining chip with Washington. At the time, Iran denied these allegations and subsequently U.S. officials believed Levinson was dead. However, in April 2011, pictures of Robert resurfaced on the internet. He was seen wearing an orange jumpsuit, holding signs, believed to be written by his captors in broken English. 

Although both the U.S. and Iran defended their positions, investigations from the Associated Press (AP) in 2013 revealed that Levinson had been working on the instructions of the CIA at the time of his disappearance, which was contrary to the U.S. position that he had been working as a private investigator in a smuggling case in the Persian Gulf. Shortly after Levinson had gone missing, the CIA forced three CIA officials to turn in resignations and disciplined seven other officials who had allegedly instructed Levinson to travel to Iran.

No substantial information of Robert’s mission was ever disclosed by the U.S. officials, although it is speculated that he had been working on something highly classified given the United States Department of State Rewards for Justice Program offered up to $20 million in reward for information leading to Robert’s whereabouts. 

Similarly, Iran denied all allegations relating to Levinson’s capture. However, on 4th April 2007, state-run PressTV stated that Iran captured the retired FBI agent. The same report also noted that Robert was visiting Kish “purely” for business purposes. Distressed, the Christine Levinson, Robert’s wife and Dan Levinson, Robert’s oldest son went to Iran in December 2007, meeting Iranian officials in pursuit of information relating to Robert.

They visited Hotel Maryam where they were shown a checkout receipt signed by Robert himself. Although former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad admitted they had custody over Robert, he did not settle whether he would be returned. His successor, President Hassan Rouhani, when asked about Robert’s whereabouts, denied that Iran had custody of him but said he and his officials would assist the U.S. counterparts in locating Robert. In March 2020, the Levinson family and the U.S. government jointly concluded that Robert had died in Iranian custody before 2020. 

U.S. District Court’s Decision

On 5th October 2020, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, ruled in a memorandum opinion, holding the government of Iran to have been responsible for Robert’s death. Judge Timothy Kelly, in the six-page memorandum, entered in a default judgment against Iran on behalf of the Plaintiffs (the Levinson family) and appointed Alan L. Balaran as a Special Master, who was requested to provide a detailed report of the compensation each member of the Levinson family was entitled to.

Based on testimonial and documentary evidence provided, the Court concluded $150 million per plaintiff in punitive damages and $107 million, in total as compensatory kidnapping charges. The Levinson family welcomed the decision of the Court saying that the judgment might deter Iran and hostile States alike from rogue adventurism in the future.

Click here to read judgment


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