A New York jury ruled Thursday in federal court that a skyscraper with apparent ties to the Iranian government can be seized by the U.S. government, in what prosecutors are calling the single largest terrorism-related civil forfeiture case in American history.
The jury found that the Alavi Foundation, which owns about 60 percent of the 36-floor building, funneled money to the Assa Corporation, a shell company for Iran's state-controlled bank that owned the remaining 40 percent of the building.
The defense argued that the Alavi Foundation, founded as a charity by the shah of Iran in the 1970s, had been tricked into believing that Assa had been sold to private investors after the 1995 implementation of U.S. sanctions on Iran.
"It's really difficult to understand why you can be held accountable for the knowledge that you were trying to get, but you were lied to about," defense attorney John Gleeson said during closing arguments, according to The New York Times.
Prosecutors asserted that officials from the Alavi Foundation lied, hiding and shredding documents in an attempt to erase guilt.
"The owners of 650 Fifth Avenue gave the Iranian government a critical foothold in the very heart of Manhattan through which Iran successfully circumvented U.S. economic sanctions," Joon H. Kim, a lawyer from the prosecutor's office, told French news agency AFP.
Situated on New York City's posh Fifth Avenue, the building is valued at between $500 million and $1 billion. The court has decided to distribute the proceeds from its sale to the victims of Iran-sponsored terrorist attacks.
In particular, victims of the 1983 Beirut Marine barracks attack and of the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia will receive benefits. Tehran has consistently denied involvement in either of the attacks.
In 2013, a lower court decided the case in the U.S. government's favor, but the decision was stayed on appeal.