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DC Circuit upholds default damages judgment against Syria

The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit [official website] on Friday unanimously ruled [opinion, PDF] to uphold a $413 million judgment against Syria for assisting in the the murders of two US contractors. In 2004, two military contractors assisting the US in Iraq, Olin Armstrong and Jack Hensley, were kidnapped, held hostage, and ultimately decapitated by al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi [JURIST news archive], videos of which were circulated on the internet. The contractors' estates filed suit under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (FSIA) [28 USC §§ 1330, 1602 et seq.], claiming Syrian officials provided material support [CNN report] for the murders in the form of "advice or assistance." The appeals court decided two procedural issues in favor of the estates of the two contractors, holding that the court had jurisdiction and that the families adequately effected service of process against Syria when they first filed suit. Syria made a number of other challenges to the district court's default judgment order rendered against the country, but the court upheld the ruling, finding that none of Syria's constitutional, procedural, or jurisdictional challenges to the default judgment had merit.

US citizens have brought similar suits against foreign nations under the FSIA. On Thursday, a judge for the US District Court for the District of Columbia granted $300 million in punitive damages [JURIST report] in each of two cases against Iran for deaths resulting from suicide bombings by Iranian-backed terrorist groups. The court found that the plaintiffs could be awarded damages based on the exception to the FSIA for "state-sponsored terrorism." Other attempts to litigate pursuant to FSIA have failed, however. In 2009, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit dismissed a lawsuit [JURIST report] brought by survivors of the 9/11 attacks [JURIST news archive] against the nation of Saudi Arabia and four of its princes, ruling that the defendants were protected from prosecution under the FSIA. The ruling upheld a 2005 ruling [JURIST report] by the US District Court for the Southern District of New York.

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