What do a Jewish attorney from New Jersey and a totalitarian, terrorist-sponsoring, vehemently anti-Semitic State, such as Iran, have in common? Their connection is so far-fetched that if it were the subject of a movie no one would believe it. This story chronicles one man’s determination to obtain justice for his murdered daughter and, in doing so, triumphing over the judicial system, the State Department, the Justice Department, several multi-national banks, and the State of Iran, itself. Read on, and be inspired.
In 1995 Stephen Flatow was an ordinary real estate attorney living in New Jersey. His daughter, Alisa, was studying in Israel for the semester. One day, on her way to the beach she became the victim of a horrendous terrorist attack when her bus was struck intentionally by a van filled with explosives. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad (“PIJ”) took responsibility for the act. Alisa was mortally wounded in the attack and died some days later in an Israeli hospital. As a side issue to the main story, the Flatows wanted to donate various of Alisa’s organs. Organ donation is frowned upon among some Jewish groups, especially in Israel, who maintain that the body should be buried whole and unaltered. But Jewish law does provide an exception if the purpose of the donation is to save a life. The Flatows were practicing Orthodox Jews and believed organ donation would be acceptable in order to save a life. They verified this with their rabbi, and they proceeded. They donated Alisa’s heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, pancreas and corneas, saving six lives in the process. As inspiring as that was, it is not the main point of this story.
It was well-known that Iran was the sponsor of the PIJ. Flatow was determined that they be held accountable. Below, in summary form, is how he achieved his objective:
1. At that time, US law did not permit private citizens to sue foreign governments, so Flatow worked to change the law. As you can imagine, that was a daunting task.
2. Flatow, with the assistance of Senator Frank J. Lautenberg and President Clinton, lobbied Congress to pass the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1996, which allowed US citizens to sue foreign nations for damages in Federal court under certain circumstances.
3. The courts rejected the law, but Flatow did not give up. He got Congress to pass another law, which the courts ratified.
4. The court awarded Flatow a judgement of nearly $250 million. Now, came the task of collecting it from a country that, due to sanctions, officially, had no assets or business interests in the US.
5. Flatow got very inventive. First, he attempted to take possession of the former Iranian embassy, which was lying dormant. The State Department thwarted that idea. It wanted to save it for when and if relations with Iran might be normalized.
6. Reasoning that Iran was likely funneling money through the major US financial markets illicitly, especially NY, in order to fund its terrorist activities, Flatow began hunting for hidden Iranian assets. Eventually, the trail led to the Alavi Foundation. The Alavi Foundation had been established in the days of the Shah to promote Iranian culture in the US. It owned a huge skyscraper in Manhattan near Rockefeller Center, prime real estate. Flatow suspected that Alavi was a “front” for Bank Melli, Iran’s government-owned national bank.
7. The Manhattan District Attorney’s office got wind of Flatow’s activities and got involved. By fortunate happenstance, one of the attorneys in the DA’s office was Eitan Arusy, a former Israeli soldier who had actually been one of the soldiers that had responded to the terror attack back in 1995. He took a special interest in the case. Eventually, it was determined that Alavi was not a charity but, rather, an instrument of the Iranian government.
8. The Feds, led by the Treasury Department and the FBI, took over the prosecution of the case.
9. Several multi-national banks were found to be complicit in moving Iranian funds into and out of the US illegally on behalf of Bank Melli. In order to disguise the transactions the banks had been deleting the Iranian clients’ identifying information from the wire transfers.
10. Alavi was forced to sell the building. In addition, the complicit banks – BNP, Credit Suisse, Lloyds, and Barclays, among others, were forced to settle with the Feds and pay huge fines ($8.9 billion in the case of BNP alone). The proceeds will be distributed to the victims of terrorism.
This story is a testament to persistence and determination. It is a tribute to a grieving father who wanted justice for his daughter and never gave up his quest regardless of the roadblocks. Sue a foreign government, no problem. Against the law, change the law. Struck down by the courts, pass another law. Opposition by the State Department, bring it on. Fight various powerful, multi-national banks, no sweat. This story should be an inspiration to us all.