Former Marine Amir Hekmati sues Iran for alleged torture

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Story highlights

  • Lawyers for Amir Hekmati filed a complaint Monday detailing the conditions of their client's confinement in Iran
  • Hekmati was imprisoned by Iranian authorities in 2011 and was released in January

Washington (CNN)A former U.S. Marine and Iranian captive is suing the government in Tehran over alleged torture while he was detained.

American Amir Hekmati -- released after years of imprisonment as part of the U.S.-Iran prisoner swap in January -- is claiming he experienced electric shock, forced drug withdrawal and other forms of torture at the hands of his Iranian captors.
    Lawyers for Amir Hekmati filed a complaint Monday in U.S. federal court in Washington detailing the conditions of their client's confinement and asking for economic and compensatory damages from Iran.
    "During those months, and during the entirety of his four and a half years in captivity, Mr. Hekmati suffered prolonged and continuous physical abuse at the hands of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence," the complaint alleges, describing a
    17-month period that he spent in solitary confinement in a roughly 3-foot by 5-foot cell at Iran's notorious Evin Prison.
    "The torture that Mr. Hekmati endured included being whipped at the bottom of his feet, struck by an electrical Taser to his kidney area, forced to stay in stress positions for hours at a time, and hit with batons," the document alleges.
    "Prison guards threw water on his cell floor to prevent him from sleeping. A very bright light was kept on 24 hours a day to invoke sensory deprivation," it continues. "Mr. Hekmati's captors would force him to take lithium and other addictive pills and then stop giving him the pills to invoke withdrawal symptoms. He was denied proper medical care and suffered severe malnutrition."
    Hekmati's lawyers say their client was also subjected to "extreme and continuous psychological torture," and that he now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
    Hekmati was imprisoned by Iranian authorities in 2011 while visiting his grandmother in Tehran. He was convicted of several charges, including espionage, and sentenced to death in 2012. That sentence was ultimately reduced to 10 years in prison.
    "Amir can never be adequately compensated for his suffering and the lasting impact that this has had, and will have, on the rest of his life," Scott D. Gilbert, one of Hekmati's lawyers, said in a statement Monday. "Our intention, with the filing of this lawsuit, is to attempt to provide at least some measure of justice for Amir and his family.
    The case drew widespread international attention, particularly as the U.S. worked to secure a historic nuclear deal with Iran. U.S. diplomats ultimately used diplomatic channels opened during the nuclear negotiations to secure the release of Hekmati and three other American citizens in exchange for several Iranian and dual U.S.-Iranian nationals in American prisons.
    The State Department is not commenting on the lawsuit and note they are not a party to it.
    But the U.S. government has spoken out against other recent attempts to sue foreign governments, including a bill that would allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue the Saudi Arabian government over alleged links to al Qaeda financing.
    In an interview with CBS last month, President Barack Obama expressed concern that such a law could open the door for lawsuits by foreign nationals against the U.S.
    "If we open up the possibility that individuals in the United States can routinely start suing other governments, then we are also opening up the United States to being continually sued by individuals in other countries," he said.
    But shortly after that interview, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a separate law -- signed by the President -- which allows the victims of a 1983 bombing of Marine Corps barracks in Beirut to collect frozen Iranian assets. Iran's government has been linked to that bombing.
    Steve Vladeck, a CNN contributor and law professor at American University Washington College of Law, told CNN, "Foreign governments generally have immunity from civil suit in U.S. courts" under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (FSIA), but Congress added a waiver in 1996 allowing U.S. terrorism victims to sue, if the offending government has been designated a 'state sponsor of terrorism,' " which applies to Iran.
    "It's actually relatively easy to sue these countries under the FSIA today," Vladeck said, "although it's often hard to prove the case on the merits -- to tie the country to the specific act of terrorism -- and even if a plaintiff can do that, collecting a money judgment is next to impossible."