(CN) – U.S. victims of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis are barred from seeking $6.6 billion in damages, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled reluctantly.
Dismissing the claims “with an equal measure of frustration, regret, and compassion,” U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan held that an anti-terrorism statute in a 2008 federal law did not alter the complexion of the case.
The former hostages argued that the federal law, the National Defense Authorization Act, trumped the Algiers Accord, an agreement between the United States and Iran that preempted their release.
The 1981 agreement contained provisions that granted immunity to the Iranian government for its role in the ordeal.
But Judge Sullivan said the Act did not “unambiguously” create a cause of action allowing the hostages to hold Iran accountable.
“Congress has failed to enact plain, straightforward language … nor has Congress clearly expressed its intent to abrogate the Algiers Accords,” Sullivan wrote. “Regrettably, this court must conclude as a matter of law that the plaintiffs cannot pursue a lawsuit for damages for the human suffering and atrocities inflicted upon them by the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
The plaintiffs tried and failed to sue Iran four times, starting in 1983. Sullivan referred to the federal court’s 2002 dismissal under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act to explain why, once again, he had to reject the claims.
“The principles that guided the court’s decision … are fundamental to our system of government and the fair administration of justice,” the judge wrote, adding that these principles were “equally binding” on him.
Sullivan directly quoted the text from the court’s earlier decision, which stated that lawmakers needed to legislate “unambiguously … with clear expressions” or otherwise run the risk of letting the courts “impermissibly assume the legislative role.”
“It is not enough to show that a later-in-time statute may be read to abrogate a previously-enacted international agreement,” Sullivan wrote. “In short, when interpreting newly created federal legislation which covers the same legal ground as pre-existing international agreements, this court’s role is extremely limited.”
Fifty-two U.S. citizens were held hostage after Islamist revolutionary students took over the U.S. embassy on Nov. 4, 1979. The crisis lasted 444 days, after botched diplomatic and rescue efforts by the Carter administration. The hostages secured their freedom on Jan. 20, 1981, the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as president of the United States.