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Lawmakers Renew Effort in Support of Former US Hostages in Iran

With support from some members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Americans held hostage by Iran more than 25 years ago continue to seek compensation for their captivity. Former hostages appeared on Capitol Hill with members of Congress backing legislation seeking reparations from Iran to compensate them and family members for suffering during that difficult period.

From November 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981, a period remembered as the Iranian hostage crisis, 52 Americans were held by Iranian militants for 444 days.

Their release was achieved in the final days of the outgoing administration of then President Jimmy Carter, after negotiations culminating in a document known as the Algiers Accords.

That agreement, in which the U.S. government released nearly eight billion dollars in frozen Iranian assets, established a special tribunal to handle U.S. and Iranian claims.

But a key provision prevented former hostages from suing the government of Iran for their seizure, detention, torture or injuries.

Since 2000, when former hostages filed a suit in the U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C. under a 1996 Anti-terrorism Act, they have been engaged in an ongoing legal battle to obtain compensation.

A bill submitted Wednesday in the House of Representatives, backed mostly by House Republicans but with a few Democratic co-sponsors, renews efforts to obtain what the former hostages say would be justice for their ordeal.

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House Middle East Subcommittee, is the key sponsor.

"Failing to act now will only serve to perpetuate a situation that has also held U.S. policy hostage for close to a quarter century," she said. "Not only do we have the legal authority, but it is also our duty and our moral obligation to make sure that we seek justice for these victims of terrorism and hold the terrorists and their state sponsors accountable."

Her bill argues that the Algiers Accords should be abrogated, saying the 1996 anti-terrorism law commits the United States to seek justice for U.S. victims of terrorism and to hold terrorists and state-sponsors accountable.

It seeks payments of $1,000 each to former hostages for each day spent in captivity in Iran, and $500 for spouses and children of former hostages.

The U.S. government has opposed the former hostage's efforts, arguing that the United States would risk loss of credibility if the Algiers Accords are not adhered to.

Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman, a sharp critic of U.S. policy toward Iran, argues the Algiers agreement should be considered null and void because of the conditions under which it was signed, and what he calls Iran's continuing support for terrorism.

"How many times will Iran wage acts of aggression and [we] still say, but we are bound by the Algiers Accords? After Pearl Harbor, treaties between the United States and Japan no longer held sway," he said.

Bruce Laingen was the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat in Tehran at the time Iranian militants overran the U.S. embassy in 1979. On Wednesday, he stood with other former hostages in front of a large poster containing photographs of the 52 American hostages during their captivity.

"We stand here in front of that [big poster of] 52 faces we won't forget. We have been forgotten for the last few years, 25 years in the context of what the government of Iran owes this group," Mr. Laingen said.

Don Cooke was vice consul at the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 and still works for the U.S. State Department.

"We really appreciate that after 25 years, these congress people are willing to step up, and seek justice for hostages, and to step up and respond to the aggression on the part of the Iranian regime," Mr. Cooke said.

After Iran's election, in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president, four former hostages said they were convinced he was one of the militants involved in the U.S. embassy seizure in 1979.

Iranian officials have denied the new president took part in the takeover of the embassy or in holding Americans hostage.

The House legislation focusing on former U.S. hostages in Iran comes amid strong bipartisan support for a separate bill called the Iran Freedom Support Act, also sponsored by Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen.

In 2001, a few months after the September 11, al-Qaida attacks in the United States, Democratic Senator Tom Harkin sponsored legislation in support of former U.S. hostages in Iran, saying it would send a clear message that Americans will not only respond to terrorism with force, but exact justice.