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Appeals court upholds $413 million lawsuit against Syria

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
  • The case stemmed from a terror group's murder of two Americans
  • Olin "Jack" Armstrong and Jack Hensley were military contractors in Iraq
  • The ruling was unanimous

Washington (CNN) -- A $413 million judgment against Syria, resulting from a terror group's gruesome murder of two Americans, was upheld Friday by a U.S. federal appeals court.

The unanimous ruling was a legal victory for the families of the men, which had sought to hold the Middle Eastern nation accountable for what a district judge concluded was the nation's "material support" of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The judges noted the case arose from "gruesome and memorable facts."

Olin "Jack" Armstrong and Jack Hensley were working as military contractors in Iraq when they were abducted in 2004. The group al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, claimed responsibility. The group's leader Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi later decapitated the men, a scene captured on videotape and circulated widely on the Internet.

Al-Zarqawi was later killed in 2006 by a U.S. airstrike.

The separate estates of the two Americans then brought a lawsuit against Syria, which included the country's president and head of military intelligence. The families claimed Syrian officials facilitated the torture and beheadings by providing material support, which federal law says can consist of not only money, weapons and shelter, but also "advice or assistance."

The issues for the Washington-based appeals court were whether the judges had jurisdiction to hear the dispute, and whether Syria was properly served with the lawsuit.

The three-judge panel concluded they indeed had jurisdiction and that "the families adequately effected service of process against Syria when they first filed suit."

Steven Perles, attorney for the families of Armstrong and Hensley, said in a statement, "It is our hope that if we can collect on some of this, Syria will realize they must repudiate their support for terrorists and rejoin the civilized world."

Syria has been on the U.S. list of "state sponsors of terrorism" since the list's inception in 1979. The State Department's official website says after the 9/11 terror attacks on American soil, Syria "began limited cooperation with U.S. counterterrorism efforts."

U.S.-based attorneys for Syria had argued "several procedural, constitutional, and jurisdictional defects" in the the trial judge's original ruling upholding a default judgment. There was no immediate comment on Friday from Syrian officials or their attorneys.

A federal law known at the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act normally protects countries from lawsuits in federal courts. However, exceptions are made, among other things, for state-sponsored torture, hostage-taking charges, extra-judicial killings and aircraft sabotage.

The case is Gates v. Syrian Arab Republic (08-7118).