It took an act of Congress, but disabled construction worker Jack Frazier finally has something to celebrate. A dozen years after his health was destroyed as a hostage in Iraq, Frazier dined on lobster last night -- and hoped it was at Saddam Hussein's expense.
Frazier, 65, is much closer to collecting $1.75 million in frozen Iraqi assets, thanks to the terrorism insurance bill that passed the Senate on Tuesday night at President Bush's urging. The bill, which had already won approval in the House of Representatives, includes a section giving some 200 American victims of terrorism or their families access to an estimated $4 billion in accounts of U.S.-designated terrorist nations, such as Iraq, Iran and Libya.
They can collect if, like Frazier, they've already won compensatory damages in court. The State Department lobbied hard against such payouts, saying the assets should be kept off-limits as a foreign policy tool.
But embittered victims like Frazier, supported by trial attorneys and a strong majority in Congress, wanted to hit the terrorists in the wallet.
"Both the House and Senate did what was right," Frazier said from a nursing home in Lake Havasu City, Ariz. "We're still the best country going."
Frazier spent more than two months in captivity in Iraq after Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990. Denied his diabetes medication, he went blind in one eye and suffered severe circulation and nervous system problems that ultimately put him in a wheelchair. Doctors say he has no hope of recovery.
Working on an oil project for Bechtel Corp., Frazier was among hundreds of Americans trapped in Kuwait or Iraq by Iraqi forces before the start of the Persian Gulf War. He was detained in the U.S. ambassador's residence, while many others were deployed as "human shields" to protect strategic Iraqi installations in case of U.S. airstrikes.
"A new era in terrorism law begins with the signing of this bill," said Pamela Falk, a law professor at the City University of New York and an expert on victim compensation. "This opens unbelievable floodgates for lawsuits against terrorist states. Hungry lawyers fighting for victims is a very powerful weapon."
Others hoping to finally see compensation include the family of Charles Hegna, an Agency for International Development worker from Virginia who was killed in a Hezbollah-directed hijacking of a Kuwaiti airliner in 1984. He was shot in the stomach, thrown onto the tarmac, and died days later. Iran sponsored the operation, a U.S. court said in awarding $42 million in compensatory damages to Hegna's widow, Edwena, and her four children.
"I do think this furthers America's resolve and seriousness in fighting the war on terrorism," said Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who co-sponsored an amendment to compensate such victims. Making the terrorist nations pay is "very logical and common-sense," he added.
For plaintiffs, the fight for compensation in court has also meant battling U.S. government lawyers. Even after winning their uncontested lawsuits against Iran and Iraq, victims have had to make claims against the U.S. Treasury, which controls the frozen assets.
After years of litigating and lobbying, plaintiff lawyers were unwilling to claim total victory yesterday, speculating that the Justice Department or State Department may still attempt to block collections.
"We're very happy," said attorney Dan Wolf, who represents many of the former hostages, including Frazier. Officials at State and Justice had no immediate comment.
"I was very bitter against the government. I felt they had tossed me on the trash heap along with the rest of us who were hostages," Frazier said. But yesterday he was elated -- especially after his meal of lobster with melted butter, a nice change from the regular nursing home fare.