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Justice Dept. Defends Iran vs. San Diego Student Killed by Hamas


In what has to be a first, Iran has won a federal court victory against the family of a San Diegan killed by a terrorist attack allegedly bankrolled by the extremist regime. And who represented the Islamic Republic, which the U.S. State Department classifies as a state sponsor of terrorism? The U.S. Justice Department, according to a Wall Street Journal blog.

There's been no thaw between Washington and Tehran, however. Instead, the Justice Department found itself obligated to step up under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, a 1961 treaty concerning foreign government property, WSJ reports.

In 2002, Marla Bennett, a 24-year-old graduate student from San Diego, was one of six people killed by a bomb blast at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. After Hamas claimed responsibility, Bennett's parents sued Iran, one of the terrorist group's financial backers, according to the Wall Street Journal piece. Normally, foreign governments can't be sued in federal court, but Congress waived that immunity for state sponsors of terrorism. When Iran failed to show up for trial, a federal judge in Washington entered a default judgment of $12.9 million for the Bennett family.


To collect, The Wall Street Journal reports, the plaintiffs sought to seize the Iranian Embassy in Washington and other property that has sat vacant since the U.S. cut diplomatic relations in 1980, after regime-backed radicals took American diplomats hostage in the American Embassy in Tehran. The Vienna Convention has a provision for just such an instance. When relations are severed, the host nation must 'preserve and protect' the foreign government's diplomatic property. The U.S. has held the Iranian Embassy since then, occasionally renting it out for parties to help pay the maintenance costs.

Bennett's parents argued that because the government rented the facilities to third parties, they no longer were exclusively diplomatic properties'and thus exempt from the treaty requirements. The U.S. government disagreed, and with Iran ignoring the legal proceedings, stepped up to prevent the Bennetts from seizing the property. On Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit sided with the government.