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Saturday, May 25, 2024 | Back issues
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Mystery Terror Victim’s Estate Can’t Sue Syria

(CN) - Sidestepping the disputed true identity of an alleged terror victim, a federal judge has thrown out the lawsuit his estate is fighting over a 1985 airport bombing.

"Who was Peter Knowland? It depends on whom you ask," the 16-page opinion begins.

Michelle Van Beneden, who claims to be Knowland's heir, asserts that Knowland was a U.S. citizen injured in a Syrian-sponsored terrorist attack at the Schwechat Airprot in Vienna, Austria, targeting passengers boarding a flight to Israel.

The Dec. 27, 1985, strike had been coordinated with a nearly simultaneous assault on Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport outside Rome, Italy.

More than 100 people were injured and 16 people died in the twin attacks for which the Abu Nidal Organization, a militant Palestinian splinter group, later claimed credit.

Syria, found to have sponsored the attack, says that the only American man injured in the attack was Peter Lesley, but Van Beneden says Lesley had been Knowland's name before he changed it in 1984.

It is unclear how Knowland might have come to be at the Schwechat Airport on the day of the attack, and he did not return to the United States afterward. Rather he made his home in Monaco and died in Belgium in 2010.

U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer declined to wade into the mystery surrounding the man's true identity, because she found that Van Beneden does not have standing to represent Knowland's estate in the first place - even if he is Peter Lesley.

"The Foreign Claims Settlement Commission has found that not only is Ms. Van Beneden not the proper representative of Mr. Knowland's estate, but also that Mr. Knowland's estate does not exist as a legal entity," she wrote. "Collaterally estopped from contesting these findings, Ms. Van Beneden is without standing to pursue the instant litigation."

The Foreign Claims Settlement Commission (FCSC) found significant questions as to whether an estate had been established in Belgium, and concluded that there were "essentially, only attorneys before the commission, and no client, claim or claimant in relation to which an award may be made."

Although Van Beneden submitted numerous documents to establish her claim to Knowland's estate, she already litigated this exact issue before the FCSC, which ruled against her.

Collateral estoppel precludes a claimant from relitigating the same issue before any other court.

In a footnote, Collyer noted: "Evidence of an estate is similarly lacking [in this case], leading this court to reach the same conclusion. ... Between counsel's concessions before FCSC and the dearth of contrary evidence provided in these pleadings, the court is not satisfied that his estate exists as a legal entity. Even if collateral estoppel did not apply, the court, taking judicial notice of the record before FCSC, would find that it is without jurisdiction to hear the matter."

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