Americans held by Iraq during the Gulf War in 1991 testified to
Congress Tuesday about their efforts to obtain hundreds of millions of
dollars in compensation and punitive damages from the Iraqi
government. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill.
The legal history may be complex, but the underlying emotions are not. Americans subjected to torture and other mistreatment while in the hands of the Saddam Hussein regime want to be compensated for their suffering.
George Charchalis, who is retired from the U.S. Navy, was in Kuwait at the time of Iraq's invasion in 1990.
"What I had feared most came to pass. The Iraqi soldiers kicked down the door and struck me in the face with a rifle butt, knocking me down to the ground and kicking me in the stomach," he said.
He is among 17 Americans held by Iraq during the Gulf War who have sought compensation from the present-day government in Baghdad.
Under a more than decade-old law, foreign nations on a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, as Iraq used to be, are liable for damages for torture or the killing or hostage taking of U.S. citizens. And international law holds that successor regimes can be held liable.
Ambassador John Norton Moore was co-counsel in a 2002 case against Iraq in which a U.S. judge awarded former POWs $959 million.
"The word of the Congress and the nation is clear," he said. "Those who torture Americans will be held accountable. There is no if, and or but attached to those pledges."
But after the U.S. invaded Iraq, efforts to collect from frozen Iraqi assets were blocked by the Bush administration, which cited a need to protect Iraqi reconstruction funds.
In a 2005 ruling, the Supreme Court declined to accept an appeal from the group, effectively overturning the nearly billion-dollar federal court award.
A provision in defense legislation approved by Congress in 2007 would have allowed the lawsuit to proceed. But President Bush, again citing threats to Iraqi reconstruction funds, used a procedural tactic to veto the measure.
Democratic Representative Steve Cohen chaired the House Judiciary Committee hearing.
"The president has not satisfactorily explained why these fundamental [legal] principles should be disregarded here, nor has he satisfactorily explained why all of Iraq's assets must be shielded, even while it is reaping billions upon billions of dollars from its oil fields, and while it is readily paying off pre-war commercial debts to foreign corporations totaling $4.4 million," he said.
U.S. Navy Captain Larry Slade was among the plaintiffs in the original lawsuit.
"My fellow POWs and I, who brought this historic case, were tortured by Iraq through brutal beatings, starvation, electric shock, whipping, burning, mock executions, threatened dismemberment, threats to our families, subjection to bombing, and breaking of bones and eardrums," he said.
Slade says former POW claims are also supported by unanimous congressional resolutions condemning Iraqi abuses and Saddam Hussein's use of detainees as human shields, as well as a February 2002 executive order by President Bush holding states, organizations and individuals responsible for treating U.S. personnel humanely.
"These courageous POWs and their family members, whom the nation owes a debt of gratitude, have struggled now for six years in their efforts to hold their torturers accountable, said Ambassador John Morton Moore. "Surely six years in their efforts to support the rule of law, as volunteers for their country, is enough.
Continuing to block compensation efforts, adds Moore, means future generations of American POW's will face a greater likelihood of being tortured.
Attorney Daniel Wolf asserts the Bush administration has blocked compensation to prevent the issue from harming bilateral negotiations with Iraq over two agreements on future relations, and the status of U.S. forces.
"The irony could not be greater," he said. "Having once had their physical selves held hostage by the Iraqi government to extort concessions from the United States, Iraq's former American victims are now having their claims held hostage by their own government so that it can extract concessions from Iraq."
Wolf accuses the State Department of, in his words, looking for a convenient opportunity to abandon (the claims) forever.
Iowa Democrat Bruce Braley says there could be some hope in a legal compromise he has proposed.
"The alternative that I am proposing would eliminate any fears of a flood of expensive lawsuits, because it specifies the plaintiffs against Iraq, and offers relative modest amounts [despite] the judgment that is already on the books for the POW-torture victims," he said. "The total amount that Iraq would have to pay under this compromise agreement would be approximately $415 million."
Braley says this contrasts with billions of dollars the U.S. is spending in Iraq, adding that his proposal would permit former POW's to be compensated, while eliminating Iraqi government concerns.
At the same time, legislation the lawmaker is sponsoring would remove authority President Bush received from Congress under which he could waive provisions regarding Iraq on the basis of national security.