‘Human Shields’ Press for Compensation

Congress has largely pushed off debate over the current war in Iraq until next year, but a band of lobbyists has been storming Capitol Hill to press Members to approve a measure dealing with the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The Justice for Victims of Torture and Terrorism Act is scheduled for a markup today by the House Judiciary Committee. It would pave the way for more than 200 American citizens who say they were used by the Saddam Hussein regime as “human shields” as well as 17 former military prisoners of that war to collect settlements from the government of Iraq.

Advocates say that on the eve of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the former POWs and civilian human shields were in the midst of suing Iraq in U.S. courts under an amendment to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act that allows people to pursue claims against state sponsors of terrorism and torture.

Since then, the lobbyists say, the U.S. government has stood in the way of allowing these Americans to tap into Iraqi assets held here.

“What it will do is finally compensate American citizens who were tortured and used as human shields during the first Gulf War,” said Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), who sponsored the measure. “It will bring to a close a very sad chapter.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they tapped lobbyists from Greenberg Traurig, including managing shareholder Ron Kleinman, to help spread the message on Capitol Hill. Daniel Wolf, a former State Department lawyer who now runs the Law Offices of Daniel Wolf, serves as the lead counsel for the former human shields. Wolf said the Greenberg Traurig lobbyists will get paid on a contingency basis if the clients collect.

The legislation would cap the amount of money any individual human shield could receive at $900,000; the cap for POWs would be much higher, into the millions in some cases, but limited to one-third of the amount that courts have already awarded to them. Lawyers said they expect each person’s claim to average about $400,000 to $500,000 depending on the extent of the torture and the duration of captivity.

The Bush administration has said it opposes the measure because the funds are needed to help in the rebuilding of Iraq, but a White House spokesman did not return a request for comment.

“The representation that somehow allowing these judgments would imperil the reconstruction of Iraq is hyperbole of the worst kind,” Wolf said, adding that he expects the total price tag for his clients’ judgments to be around $110 million. “It’s a fraction of the amount of interest that’s just sitting in U.S. banks anyway. The administration doesn’t like these lawsuits and doesn’t want to see these claimants get paid a dime.”

A first group of about 180 clients have mostly been paid, Wolf said, but a second group — known as the “Vine case” with 200 individuals — has not.

“Their own government in the form of President Bush seized the assets that should have been used to pay that judgment,” Braley said. “It’s a moral obligation of Congress to fix this problem.”

Lobbyists say they are working the Senate to get similar legislation introduced there, but so far nothing has been introduced in that chamber.

In the 1991 Gulf War, the Saddam Hussein government seized more than 400 U.S. citizens, who were there as tourists, teachers or contractors. Many were taken to military sites and used as shields.

University of Virginia law professor John Norton Moore, co-counsel for the POWs and their families, called the bill a “grand compromise” in which his clients are willing to settle for pennies on the dollar. Norton Moore said that already Iraq has made settlements, worth billions of dollars, with foreign corporations.

“It resolves a matter of national honor by providing justice for American prisoners of war tortured by Iraq,” he said. “And it serves as deterrents against torturing future Americans held by the enemy.”

One-time prisoners of war and human shields have spent recent days lobbying for the measure on Capitol Hill.

George Charchalis, an American working at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research in 1991, said he was used as a human shield and held for five months as a prisoner. He was eventually released when boxing great Muhammad Ali visited the country and Saddam Hussein allowed him to take home several American hostages. “I said, ‘I wonder who those lucky bastards are going to be, and then I found out I was one of them,’” Charchalis recalled.

Charchalis has testified before the House Judiciary Committee and has also come to town to lobby for the bill.

Retired Marine Col. Cliff Acree and Navy Capt. Larry Slade, POWs during the first Gulf War, came to town in recent days to encourage Members to support the bill.

“This case isn’t really about Cliff Acree and Larry Slade, but it’s about future American citizens that are held captive, being tortured by a foreign country and being held accountable for that, to tell the world and to tell other nations that the United States won’t tolerate the torturing of their citizens,” Acree said. “And if that is done by a foreign nation, there will be consequences for that.”

Added Slade, “I’m not a lawyer or politician, but if I was an elected official in this country, I would have a tough time explaining to constituents why I would vote against this bill.”

Topics: