Bob Levinson disappeared in Iran five years ago
Robert Levinson disappeared, March 9, 2007, while on Iran's Kish Island.

WASHINGTON - An American family suing Iran in a U.S. court for the 2007 disappearance of family patriarch Robert Levinson on an Iranian island has emerged from two days of tearful testimony more determined than ever to press Tehran for his release.

The testimony of the retired FBI agent’s wife and seven adult children at the Wednesday and Thursday sessions of Washington’s U.S. District Court “is one way to keep reminding the Iranians that we’re not going away,” said eldest son Dan Levinson in a Friday appearance on VOA Persian’s Late News program.

The seven children and wife of Robert Levinson, an American missing in Iran since 2007, appear outside U.S. District Court in Washington, Dec. 4, 2019, as they sue Iran for damages for his disappearance. (Courtesy Levinson family)

“They know exactly where my father is,” he said of the Iranian government. “It’s been almost 13 years (since the disappearance) and we’re just suffering terribly. It’s time for them to send my father home. And this (court testimony) is one way to hold them accountable and to pressure them to get this resolved.”

Father disappears in 2007

Robert Levinson disappeared March 9, 2007, while visiting southern Iran’s Kish Island as a private investigator. He had retired from a 22-year career with the FBI nine years earlier. In 2013, several U.S. news outlets reported that Levinson had been part of a rogue CIA intelligence mission, a claim that U.S. authorities have not confirmed.

Dan Levinson, the eldest son of retired FBI agent Robert Levinson, who went missing in Iran in 2007, speaks to VOA Persian outside the U.S. District Court in Washington, Dec. 4, 2019.

His family long has accused Iran’s Islamist rulers of detaining Levinson as a hostage to be traded for concessions from the U.S., which those rulers have labeled an enemy for decades. However, Iranian officials have consistently denied knowledge of Levinson’s whereabouts in their public statements.

Family members have not received any proof of life from Levinson since his captors sent a video and photos of him looking gaunt and disheveled in 2010 and 2011 respectively.

The family’s hopes were lifted last month, when the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances said Iran’s judiciary recently had notified the world body of an “open case” for Levinson in the nation’s Revolutionary Court system that handles national security cases. Iranian officials later tried to downplay the U.N. notification, saying it related to a “missing person” investigation into Levinson’s disappearance.

The Levinson family filed its ongoing lawsuit against Iran in the District Court of the District of Columbia in March 2017. Family members said this week they are seeking $150 million in compensation and $1.35 billion in punitive damages from Tehran, which did not have any representation at this week’s court sessions. Iran has not had diplomatic relations with Washington since Iranian Islamists hostile toward the U.S. seized power in the 1979 revolution.

David McGee, a lawyer for the family of Robert Levinson, speaks to VOA Persian in Washington, Dec. 4, 2019, about the family's lawsuit against Iran, where the retired FBI agent went missing in 2007.

Change Iran tactic

Levinson family lawyer David McGee told VOA Persian that the vast majority of the $1.5 billion sought from Iran is intended to dissuade it from continuing its long-running practice of arbitrarily detaining Iranian dual nationals and others with ties to the West.

“That’s inappropriate behavior. We think they should stop,” he said.

In the two days of testimony, Levinson’s children spoke of how the long disappearance of their father has traumatized some of them with panic attacks, attention deficiency, eating disorders and nightmares of Levinson being beheaded. They also read from touching messages their father had written to them before his fateful trip to Iran and described how he had been a loving influence in their lives. The testimonies brought the seven siblings to tears.

“It’s been very hard, and at times a little bit cathartic after 13 years of not talking about it, to be able to tell our story and talk about how wonderful our father is,” said Sarah Moriarty, one of Levinson’s four daughters, in a VOA Persian interview after Thursday’s session.

“The testimony of these past few days has shown how close we are as a family,” said her brother David, speaking alongside Moriarty. “It also has shown the strength of our mother, who for 12½ years has fought every day to get my father home.”

FILE - Christine Levinson, center, wife of Robert Levinson, and her children, Dan and Samantha Levinson, talk to reporters in New York, Jan. 18, 2016.

Levinson’s wife, Christine, was stoic throughout the week’s testimony.

Speaking to VOA Persian late Wednesday, she said she has worked to enable her children to go on with their lives. 

“I tell them all that they need to make their father proud. I think that is what keeps everybody going,” she said.

Regarding the next steps in the lawsuit, McGee said he expects Judge Timothy Kelly to spend the “next month or so” writing an opinion about Iran’s liability for damages.

“Assuming that he finds a liability, he will appoint a special master (court official) to make a recommendation on the damages to the family. Then the judge will make a final decision.”

McGee said the judge will consider how the family has been harmed by Levinson’s disappearance in Iran.

“I have never seen a better case for emotional damage to human beings than what was presented in the last two days here. This is a wonderful family that has been grievously harmed by the actions of the Iranian government,” he said.

There was no immediate comment from Iran to the testimony.

Dan Levinson said he expects it to take months for the judge’s final ruling to be issued.

This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service.