Iranian Jews Sue Ex-President Khatami

The Associated Press
Saturday, September 9, 2006; 11:05 PM

NEW YORK -- A group of Jewish Iranians who say their missing relatives were kidnapped and tortured by the Iranian government have sued the country's former president, delivering the summons to him directly while he was visiting the United States.

The seven families, who reside in Los Angeles and Israel, say their relatives were arrested at different times between 1994 and 1997 as they tried to leave Iran by crossing into Pakistan.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Manhattan federal court, claims former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami instituted policies that prevented the relatives from having trials and did not give family members information about where they were.

The lawsuit mentions 12 missing Jewish Iranians, all male, some of whom were teenagers at the time of their disappearance. It includes the names of three people whose relatives have not officially joined the lawsuit. The families claim they have heard at times through former prisoners and guards that their missing relatives are still alive.

Khatami, who recently was granted a special visa to enter the United States, was handed copies of the complaint Friday while attending a reception in Arlington, Va., according to representatives of the plaintiffs.

The former president, who served from 1997 to 2005, was considered a moderate in Iran, a country with which the United States severed diplomatic relations more than 20 years ago. The State Department's decision to let him into the United States for a two-week speaking tour has drawn criticism from conservatives and Iranian exile groups.

Khatami has 20 days to file a response. A message seeking comment was left at the office of the Iranian Mission to the United Nations.

The plaintiffs are suing under the Alien Tort Claims Act and the Torture Victim Protection Act, special laws that allow non-U.S. citizens to sue in American courts, according to one of their lawyers, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, who is in Jerusalem. The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of compensation.

Darshan-Leitner said Saturday in a phone interview that the families had planned the lawsuit for awhile but legally had to wait until Khatami was physically in the United States to file it.

Iran's Jewish community has deep roots in the country and is one of the largest in the Middle East, with estimates of at least 25,000 people. Though technically protected by Iran's constitution, Jews have led an uneasy existence under the country's Islamic government.

Khatami has made several public appearances during his nearly two-week trip to the United States. He was invited by the U.N.-sponsored Alliance of Civilizations, of which he is a founding member. The group strives to foster cross-cultural understanding between Western and Islamic states.

© 2006 The Associated Press