WASHINGTON, Oct. 19 (JTA) – Families like those of Alisa Flatow, Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker – Americans who have been killed in terrorist acts abroad – will soon be able to collect damages.
Under a new law expected to be signed by President Clinton soon, terror victims’ families will get compensation from the frozen assets of countries that sponsor terrorism.
That means Stephen Flatow of West Orange, N.J., will soon be able to collect money for the death of his 20-year-old daughter, who was killed in a 1995 bus bombing in the Gaza Strip. The Islamic Jihad, which receives funding from Iran, was implicated in the attack.
The Flatows were awarded a $247.5 million judgment against Iran and would now be able to collect the compensatory damages, totaling $22.5 million.
In the past, federal courts have awarded former hostages and families of terrorist victims multimillion-dollar judgments against Iran, but the administration has blocked the freeing of assets to pay the damages, citing national security interests.
The Senate last week passed the terrorism victims bill, which was included in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, by a vote of 95-0.
Some families of victims have been waiting for a chance to move forward on their cases after being repeatedly blocked by the administration.
The families of Eisenfeld and Duker, killed by a Hamas terrorist bomb in Jerusalem in 1996, would be able to collect $27 million of their $327 million judgment.
“From the point of view of the victims and families, the legislation is a historic precedent, since no administration had ever agreed to using blocked assets to satisfy judgments of federal courts,” said Steven Perles, attorney for the Flatows, Eisenfelds and Dukers.
This version of the legislation used compromise language that will allow victims to recover part of their judgments but still makes it difficult to proceed on collection of punitive damages.
The administration prefers that the families not seek any punitive damages – in part, because these represent the larger percentage of the compensation awarded by the courts – and even includes a bonus for families that say they will not proceed further to collect the additional money.
Currently, the frozen assets of nations that support terrorism are protected from U.S. court judgments if the president declares that national security interests require them to be untouched. But under the new legislation, the judgments for compensatory damages already awarded are not subject to the waiver. In future matters, the president can only exercise the waiver on a case-by-case basis.
The legislation, sponsored by Sens. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), also works around the presidential waiver by allowing the president to block the seizure of diplomatic property but not rental proceeds from diplomatic property.
The administration is still concerned that the bill could still put U.S. diplomatic property around the world at risk.
The bill is a “well-crafted compromise,” according to Stacy Burdett, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s government and national affairs office in Washington.
“It shows that where there is a will there’s a creative way to balance the administration’s concern with the need to ease the sense of abandonment felt by these families,” Burdett said.
With the money from the judgment, Flatow plans to continue contributing to the Alisa Flatow Memorial Fund, which provides scholarship funds for Americans who want to study in Israel. He also is looking into the viability of personally posting rewards for the capture and arrests of terrorists.
“We still have a tremendous responsibility to handle the legacy of Alisa and to do good things in her name,” Flatow said. “If we were able to do that it would be a true indication of our success.”