WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Gulf War veterans who were tortured by their Iraqi captors 17 years ago called Friday on President Bush to allow them to proceed with a lawsuit seeking compensation from the Iraqi government.
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Jeffrey Fox recounts Friday how he was tortured by Iraqi forces.
Bush last month rejected a defense spending bill that would have left the current Iraqi government financially liable for the actions taken by the former regime of Saddam Hussein.
The administration argues such lawsuits would siphon money needed for rebuilding Iraq, and open the country to massive liability from the misdeeds of the past.
The veterans said they wanted to send a message to other foreign leaders that mistreating prisoners of war is never acceptable under international law.
"We don't want the next POWs to be treated his way," said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Fox, a retired Air Force pilot shot down and tortured in the conflict. He and other vets spoke at a news conference in Washington urging congressional and executive action.
A 1996 federal law holds foreign nations named "state sponsors of terrorism" by the State Department open to financial damages for torture, murder, or hostage taking of U.S. citizens, including soldiers. Iraq at the time was on that government list.
Seventeen former POWs and their families filed a lawsuit in 2002 and eventually won a $959 million judgment in federal court. They have waged an unsuccessful campaign to collect that amount from the $1.7 billion of Iraqi funds frozen by the U.S. government.
Iraqi officials did not appear in U.S. courts to defend themselves, leading to a default judgment by a federal judge.
After the United States invaded and toppled Hussein's regime, a U.S.-led coalition in 2003 quickly assumed de facto control of the country and helped install a new government. The Bush administration soon intervened in the legal dispute, blocking the POWs' efforts to tap the frozen assets.
The Supreme Court, without comment, refused in 2005 to intervene, upholding a federal appeals court ruling that said Congress did not permit such lawsuits against foreign governments.
A provision of the Geneva Conventions that governs wartime rights and responsibilities notes successor governments cannot be absolved of previous mistreatment of foreign soldiers, civilians, and diplomats by past regimes.
Among those who brought suit was Fox, who was shot down on his 26th mission as a forward controller in the 1991 conflict.
Flying his A10 jet back to Saudi Arabia after a bombing run, the plane was hit by a missile and he ejected safely. Iraqi soldiers quickly captured him and he was beaten almost daily, suffering injuries that included a broken eardrum, he said.
He and the 16 other POWs who sued were released by the Iraqis and returned to active duty.
"We are here to call attention to a shameful failure," said John Norton Moore, a lawyer representing the soldiers. "There must be a premium on protecting POWs uniquely disadvantaged."
A bill passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress late last year would have permitted the lawsuit to proceed.
But Bush issued a "memo of disapproval" and let the bill die without acting on it in a process known as a "pocket veto." The president remained adamant in his opposition.
"The new democratic government of Iraq, during this crucial period of reconstruction, cannot afford to have its funds entangled in such lawsuits in the United States," said a December 28 White House statement.
That prompted outrage among congressional leaders.
"It is unfortunate that the administration failed to identify the concerns upon which this veto is based until after the bill had passed both houses of Congress and was sent to the president for signature," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
The lawsuit is back in federal district court where it began, but chances of the POWs ever collecting remain low, given the political and constitutional setbacks from the White House and the Supreme Court. E-mail to a friend