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Terror Victims' Families Turn Into Activists - 2002-05-09

Since September 11, many survivors of victims of the terrorist attacks in the United States have turned into activists. Many come to Washington to support legislative action they hope will bring about important changes.

Some are familiar with how things work on Capitol Hill, the labyrinthine path proposals must follow to become law. Others are novices, but are extremely committed to their causes.

They walk through the halls of congressional office buildings visiting representatives and senators, give emotional testimony at hearings and go before television cameras.

They have assumed center stage on a number of issues, ranging from authorizing pilots to carry guns on aircraft, to seeking the right to sue terrorist groups.

On September 11 of last year, Nicholas Chiarchiaro's wife Dorothy, and niece Delores, were on the 93rd floor of Tower One of the World Trade Center when a hijacked commercial airliners slammed into the building.

Now, Mr. Chiarchiaro stands before cameras with two congressmen who have proposed a law which would allow victims to sue terrorist nations or organizations.

"The bill is based on a very basic fundamental of life. You do something wrong, you pay for it. There are untold millions, and I have just found out, billions of dollars currently sitting in frozen asset accounts of suspected terrorists and countries that support terrorism," he said. "Currently, if these individuals or countries are sued by the victims or their families in American court, found guilty and a monetary judgment is awarded, there is currently no way to access the frozen accounts."

At the same news conference is Joseph DiMartino. His wife, Deborah-Ann, 36, was killed in the collapse of the second World Trade Center, leaving the Staten Island native with two young children to raise on his own.

Trying to help people like this are two congressmen, Republicans Chris Cannon from the Western state of Utah, and Vito Fossella of New York, who explains what the legislation is all about.

"The time is long overdue that if we can sue our neighbors and recover, that these victims should be allowed to sue these terrorist organizations, obtain a judgment and recover from the more than $3-billion that is being held right now."

Congressman Cannon says that while money will not bring back those who died on September 11, there is an important symbolic point.

"Taking money from these people who allowed these wrong, horrible things to happen, who encouraged them, who paid for them and compensating the victims who know that money came from the people who perpetrated these horrible acts, that is a little bit we can do in the right direction to see that wrongs are to some degree righted," he said.

Congressmen Fossella and Cannon say the U.S. government has frozen more than $3-billion in assets from countries such as Iran, Iraq, Libya, Cuba, North Korea, Sudan and Syria, all on Washington's official list of state sponsors of terrorism.

They say their legislation, if it becomes law, would enforce court judgments and require the State Department, which has historically not released funds based on national security considerations, to do so.

The lawmakers cited three cases in which Americans successfully sued two foreign governments, Cuba and Iran.

In 1997, families of three Cuban-Americans, whose plane was shot down by Cuban air force jets, were awarded $187-million by a Florida court.

In two other judgments: Terry Anderson, held hostage more than six years by Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, won his case against Iran. And two American families who lost loved ones in a bus bombing in Israel carried out by the radical Islamic group Hamas won their case.

Congressmen Fossella and Cannon say they believe their legislation will be supported by other lawmakers on Capitol Hill.