WASHINGTON, May 30 (UPI) -- A federal judge in Washington Friday ruled for the families of U.S. service members killed or injured in a 1983 suicide bombing of their Marine barracks in Beirut, and ordered special masters to determine damages against the Islamic Republic of Iran.
U.S. Judge Royce Lamberth also said he would consider imposing punitive damages against the Islamic republic and its Ministry of Information and Security.
In his 30-page opinion, Lamberth conceded "that some may question the utility of the present suit."
Exacting damages from Iran, or even getting tens of millions of dollars from frozen Iranian accounts in the United States, may prove problematic, and the Bush administration may oppose the damage awards as interfering with U.S. foreign policy.
However, Lamberth said he could at least "take steps that will punish the men who carried out this unspeakable attack, and in so doing, try to achieve some small measure of justice for its survivors, and for the family members of the 241 Americans who never came home."
The judge's ruling came in a case consolidating two suits filed by survivors of the U.S. service members and those who were injured in the suicide bombing.
"These actions arise from the most deadly state-sponsored terrorist attack made against American citizens prior to Sept. 11, 2001: the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, on Oct. 23, 1983," Lamberth said.
"In the early morning hours of that day, 241 American service men were murdered in their sleep by a suicide bomber," Lamberth added. "On that day, an unspeakable horror invaded the lives of those who survived the attack and the family members whose loved ones had been stolen from them. The memory of that horror continues to this day."
The family members' suits were filed in October and December 2001. Although the Iranian government was served with the complaints, it failed to respond to either case, and Lamberth ruled Iran in default.
Nevertheless, Lamberth ordered an inquiry before passing judgment. The judge said he was convinced of Iran's guilt by evidence presented during a March trial.
Lamberth said it was clear the Marines, along with British and Italian troops, were in Lebanon operating as non-combatant peacekeepers under peacetime rules of engagement.
Iran spent between $50 million and $150 million "financing terrorist organizations in the Near East" between 1983 and 1988, Lamberth said.
A radical Shiite group, Hezbollah or "the Party of God," carried out the attack during a time when the group was essentially a creature of Iran, Lamberth found, and "it is beyond question that Hezbollah and its agents received massive material and technical support for the Iranian government."
Lamberth pointed out that in 1996 Congress lifted the immunity of some foreign states that commit acts repugnant to the international community, and established a private right to sue.
The older Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act also allows exceptions, he said, when a foreign state commits an act of state-sponsored terrorism, such as "extra-judicial killing."
"The court finds that MOIS (the Ministry of Information and Security), acting as an agent of the Islamic Republic, performed acts on or about Oct. 23, 1983 ... which acts caused the deaths of over 241 peacekeeping service men at the Marine Barracks in Beirut," Lamberth ruled.
There was no immediate indication as to whether the Justice Department or the State Department would ask an appeals court to reverse the judgment.
(No. 01-2094, Peterson et al. vs. Iran; and No. 01-2684, Boulos et al. vs. Iran)