WASHINGTON (CN) – Ten years ago, while visiting a resort island just off the coast of Iran, former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared.
Three weeks later, the Iranian government announced through its news outlet that it had detained Levinson but planned to release him soon. Since then, the only times Levinson’s wife and seven children have seen him are in hostage-style videos allegedly meant to build up a ruse that the Iranian government had nothing to do with his capture.
Now, after more than a decade of watching U.S. officials negotiate back and forth with Iran to no avail, Levinson’s family has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to make Iran pay for their emotional distress.
“To deprive a prisoner of any contact with his family or his homeland for ten years constitutes psychological torture,” the family claims in the 14-page complaint filed Tuesday in Washington, D.C., federal court. “To deprive the prisoner’s family of any contact with him as well as any knowledge of his status, his whereabouts or his well-being is wanton cruelty. The Levinson family has suffered grievously from these actions and continues to suffer.”
The Levinsons say Robert’s disappearance stole the center from their “close knit and loving family,” as he has missed weddings, graduations and even his young grandson’s battle with cancer.
“In order to maintain its false story, Iran has held Robert Levinson incommunicado,” the lawsuit states. “As a result, for the last ten years he has had no contact with the outside world, including the government of the United States and most importantly, his wife and seven children. The only persons with whom Robert Levinson had contact with since March of 2007 are his captors.”
The family has also been forced to read death threats and watch random videos showing Robert “pleading for his life,” which they say is part of an attempt to make it look like some entity other than Iran is holding their patriarch.
One such video was attached to an email demanding $3 million, though the people who sent the family the message gave them no way to comply with the demand, according to the complaint.
“The threatening messages, along with the video and photographs described above, were enormously disturbing to the Levinson family,” the complaint states. “They were intended to and did create significant emotional trauma in the entire family.”
The Levinsons have looked on as the United Nations Human Rights Council and the United States government have pressured Iran to release Robert. Sometimes his release has seemed within reach, according to the complaint, including once in October 2011 when Iran offered to turn over Levinson in exchange for a postponement of an international report on Iran’s nuclear program.
Robert’s children say they have even traveled to Iran to talk directly with the Iranian government about their father’s release.
Represented by James Byram Jr., an attorney with the Alabama firm Balch Bingham, Levinson’s wife Christine and their seven children are suing Iran under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act’s terrorism exemption, which allows U.S. citizens to sue states that support terrorism or torture.
They seek an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages.
Byram did not respond to a request for comment sent Wednesday afternoon.
A statement from the Levinson family on the website www.helpboblevinson.com asks the question, “When is enough enough?
“It has been 10 years since Robert Levinson, our amazing husband, father and grandfather, was arrested on Kish Island, Iran, and imprisoned. For 10 years the government of Iran has been allowed to dodge and weave every time it was asked to come clean about what happened to Bob and send him home,” the family said. “Where is the outrage of this treatment of an American citizen? For 10 years, over and over and over again, two U.S. Presidents abandoned him, a lifelong public servant. Even Bob’s government co-workers and their bosses – they know who they are – ran away when he disappeared, to their lasting shame. Ten years is beyond enough.”