Justice, Finally, for Terrorism Victims

Joel Mowbray

11/30/2002 12:00:00 AM - Joel Mowbray
Through an amendment to the terrorism insurance bill enacted this week, President George W. Bush finally provided justice to some 200 families whose lives have been devastated by terrorism--and who then saw their difficulties compounded by the U.S. State Department. At Bush’s side at the signing ceremony were two amazing women: Edwina Hegna and Deanna Frazier. Edwina’s husband, Charles, was--in 1984--the first American killed in a terrorist hijacking. When the hijackers on his Kuwaiti Airlines flight came looking for Americans, he stood--proudly. Hegna was hauled to the front of the plane, forced to his knees, and shot in the stomach. The Hezbollah terrorists then pushed Hegna out the side of the plane, and he landed on the tarmac below. As he lay on the ground--his legs crumpled underneath him--the terrorists, who were still in the plane, shot him again. He died at an Iranian hospital two-to-three days later. Deanna Frazier knows that she soon will be a widow like Edwina, most likely in a year or two. Her once-hulking steelworker husband, Jack, lays nearly incapacitated in an Arizona nursing home, too frail to do much of anything. Frazier, who was working on an oil project in Iraq, was used by Hussein as a “human shield” in the months before Desert Storm. Denied his diabetes medicine, he sustained lasting--and devastating--health problems. The former avid basketball and racquetball player is now unable to walk and blind in one eye--all at age 65. Edwina Hegna won a $42 million judgment against the Iranian mullahs, and Frazier a $1.75 million decision against Saddam Hussein. But State would not let either collect from the frozen assets of the respective tyrants. And Hegna and Frazier were not the only ones forced into legal struggles with the State Department. Families of victims of Iraqi, Iranian, and Libyan terrorism--after suing and winning judgments against Saddam Hussein, the Iranian mullahs, and Muammar Qadafi--have seen their efforts to collect damages thwarted by State. It took an act of Congress to change that. This is not the first time Congress has tried to help the families of terrorism victims. After years of difficulty in suing terrorist regimes, Congress passed a law in 1996--supported by the State Department--stripping countries officially named as sponsors of terrorism of their “sovereign immunity” (protection from lawsuits) in American courts for terrorist actions perpetrated against U.S. citizens. Once the families had won judgments (starting in 1997) and sought to collect on them, their legal efforts ran up against a brick wall: the State Department. State, which wanted the money for its own purposes, argued that the law did not clearly specify that the families could collect from those assets. Congress responded by passing a new law in 1998 clarifying that blocked assets were, in fact, fair game. At the last minute, an anonymous ally of State on Capitol Hill sneaked in a “waiver” provision giving the president the authority to block the collection of frozen assets for reasons of national security. Clinton--at the behest of the State Department--effectively vetoed the bill right after signing it by declaring any use of frozen assets to compensate families of terrorism victims to be against “national security.” But the saga did not end there. Having had enough of State’s obfuscation, Congress took further action on behalf of the families in 2000, specifically designating 16 families--including relatives of Cuban-Americans whose plane was shot down by Castro and some victims of Iranian terrorism--who were finally to receive compensation. Violating the law’s clear intent, however, Clinton continued applying the “waiver” to all other cases--a move that coincided roughly with his pardoning spree that made Marc Rich an unwanted man. Fortunately for the victims’ families, 2002 proved to be a much better year. Strong bipartisan support emerged, and an amendment was successfully added to the terrorism insurance bill to open access to the frozen assets once and for all--overcoming State’s fierce objections. Congress’ action to help the victims of terrorism may encourage others to take terrorist thugs to court. This time, the State Department--hopefully--won’t be able to get in the way of justice.