A US judge has ordered Iran to pay 1.45 billion dollars (£1.12 billion) to the family of a former FBI agent believed to have been kidnapped while on an unauthorised CIA mission.
Robert Levinson’s family and the US government now believe he died in the Iranian government’s custody, something long denied by Tehran, though officials have offered contradictory accounts about what happened to him on Kish Island.
Tensions remain high between the US and Iran amid US President Donald Trump’s pressure campaign over Tehran’s nuclear programme.
Though the US and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since the aftermath of the 1979 US Embassy hostage crisis in Tehran, America stills holds billions of dollars in frozen Iranian assets that could be used to pay Mr Levinson’s family.
In a ruling from Thursday, the US District Court in Washington found Iran owed Mr Levinson’s family 1.35 billion dollars (£1.05 billion) in punitive damages and 107 million dollars (£82 million) in compensatory damages for his kidnapping.
The court cited the case of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who died in 2017 shortly after being freed from captivity in North Korea, in deciding to award the massive amount of punitive damages to Mr Levinson’s family.
Judge Timothy Kelly said: “Iran’s conduct here is also unique, given that – astonishingly – it plucked a former FBI and DEA special agent from the face of the earth without warning, tortured him, held him captive for as long as 13 years, and to this day refuses to admit its responsibility.
“And his wife and children, and their spouses and children – while keeping Levinson’s memory alive – have had to proceed with their lives without knowing his exact fate. These are surely acts worthy of the gravest condemnation.”
Iranian state media and officials in Tehran did not immediately acknowledge the ruling in a case in which Iran offered no defence and Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
In a statement, Mr Levinson’s family called the court’s award “the first step in the pursuit of justice”.
It said: “Until now, Iran has faced no consequences for its actions.
“Judge Kelly’s decision won’t bring Bob home, but we hope that it will serve as a warning against further hostage taking by Iran.”
Mr Levinson disappeared from Iran’s Kish Island on March 9, 2007.
For years, US officials would only say that Mr Levinson, a meticulous FBI investigator credited with busting Russian and Italian mobsters, was working for a private firm on his trip.
In December 2013, it was revealed Mr Levinson in fact had been on a mission for CIA analysts who had no authority to run spy operations.