updated 12/22/2006 2:30:27 PM ET 2006-12-22T19:30:27

The Iranian government financed a 1996 terrorist attack that killed 19 Americans in Saudi Arabia and must pay $254 million to the victims’ families, a federal judge ruled Friday.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth allows families of the victims of the Khobar Towers bombing to seek their compensation from assets that have been seized from the conservative Islamic regime in Tehran.

On June 25, 1996, a truck bomb exploded in a military housing area known as the Khobar Towers dormitory near Dhahran. U.S. authorities have long alleged that the bombing was carried out by a Saudi wing of the militant group Hezbollah, which receives support from Iran and Syria.

Though Lamberth has previously ruled that a survivor of the blast could seek payment from Iran, Friday’s ruling was the first time Tehran has been blamed for the deaths of the Americans in the bombing.

“The defendants also provided money, training and travel documents to Saudi Hezbollah members in order to facilitate the attacks,” Lamberth wrote. “Moreover, the sheer gravity and nature of the attack demonstrate the defendants’ unlawful intent to inflict severe emotional distress upon the American servicemen as well as their close relatives.”

The lawsuit was brought by the families of 17 of the 19 people killed in the attack. Iran never responded to the lawsuit, did not send an attorney to appear in the case and isn’t expected to pay the award. Iran has denied any connection to the bombing of the Khobar Towers and has rejected U.S. allegations of its involvement as “unfounded.”

But the family members can seek payment from seized Iranian accounts. The Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal, which arbitrated such issues, has long been closed to new claims so the families likely would have to seek payment through foreign courts such as Italy that have seized Iranian assets.

Thaddeus C. Fennig of Wisconsin, whose son was killed in the explosion, was pleased by the opinion.

“It shows this is not forgotten,” Fennig said. “Once in a while, for some reason or another, this comes up with people and many of them don’t even remember it anymore.”

Official says government provided funding, training
Lamberth relied heavily on testimony by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, who investigated the bombings.

Two Iranian government security agencies and senior members of the Iranian government itself provided funding, training and logistical help to terrorists who carried out the attack on a dormitory that housed U.S. Air Force pilots and staff in Saudi Arabia, Freeh testified.

In 2001, the FBI announced it would charge 13 Saudis and one Lebanese in the attack. The U.S. indictment placed heavy blame on Iran for nurturing the attack but stopped short of mentioning any Iranians by name or linking them directly to Khobar.

All of the men charged were living oversees and at large at the time of the indictment. None has been extradited to the United States for trial and the case remains open.

The judge’s decision comes as the U.N. considers imposing sanctions against Iran until it abandons its nuclear program. Iran insists its aims are peaceful; leading U.S. officials say they are convinced the Iranians intend to develop a nuclear weapon within the next decade.

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