CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A Lebanese American man’s survivors, who filed an ambitious lawsuit last year alleging Lebanon’s security agency kidnapped and tortured him before he died in the U.S., hope to find an opening after the agency recently responded in an American court.
Amer Fakhoury died in the United States in August 2020 at age 57 after suffering from stage 4 lymphoma. His family’s suit says he developed the illness and other serious medical issues while imprisoned during a visit to Lebanon over decades-old murder and torture charges that he denied.
Fakhoury’s detention in 2019 and release in 2020 marked another strain in relations between the United States and Lebanon, which finds itself beset by one of the world’s worst economic disasters and squeezed by tensions between Washington and Iran.
Recently, lawyers representing Lebanon’s security agency, the General Directorate of General Security, asked to intervene in the Fakhoury family’s wrongful death lawsuit to have the allegations against it stricken. Lebanon is not named as a defendant in the suit, which targets Iran.
In its filing, the Lebanese security agency claimed the lawsuit falsely accuses it and its director of “serious crimes of kidnapping, torture and killing at the direction or aid of alleged terrorist organizations.”
In turn, the Fakhourys’ lawyer, Robert Tolchin, has asked a judge for permission to formally sue Lebanon, along with Iran. He referred to Lebanon’s action in the family’s response as “a very strange and unusual motion filed by a nonparty.”
The family’s lawsuit filed in Washington in May initially argued it was possible to sue Iran under an exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act as it has been designated as a “state sponsor of terrorism” since 1984. The suit also described Hezbollah, now both a dominant political and militant force in Lebanon, as an “instrument” of Iran.
Iran has yet to respond to the lawsuit. It has ignored others filed against it in American courts in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and U.S. Embassy hostage crisis. Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment.
Similar lawsuits against Iran have won financial judgments, though receiving a payout can be complicated. Any award could come from the United States Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund, which has distributed funds to those held and or affected by the hostage crisis.
Regarding Lebanon, Tolchin said the Fakhourys’ lawsuit would not make sense without the allegations against Lebanon's security agency.
“We interpret that as a waiver of sovereign immunity,” he said to The Associated Press of the agency’s request. “You can’t come in and ask for affirmative relief on the merits, and, at the same time, claim to be immune.”
In a statement provided to The AP, an attorney for the agency, David Lin, said the Fakhourys’ position “that Lebanon or our client somehow waived sovereign immunity by seeking to strike baseless material from the complaint is baffling and wrong as a matter of law.”
A judge pushed back a deadline for the lawyers representing the security agency to respond to the Fakhoury’s request to sue by Jan. 26.
Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor at the Notre Dame Law School, said it may be challenging for a case to be brought against Lebanon, which is not designated a “state sponsor of terrorism."
“Not having that listing will be difficult to go after Lebanon, as opposed to Iran,” she said.
O’Connell also said a move like Lebanon's to strike the allegations “is usually not accepted by the courts as a waiver” of sovereign immunity.