- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2003

A federal judge in the District yesterday ruled that 17 former POWs of the first Gulf war who won a $1 billion reparations lawsuit against Iraq cannot get their settlement paid from frozen Iraqi assets.

On July 7, the POWs and their families were awarded $653 million in compensatory damages and $306 million in punitive damages as part of a ruling in U.S. District Court for the District that called the 1991 actions of their Iraqi captors “savagery.”

Arguing that federal law calls for such settlements to be paid out of a country’s frozen assets, the POWs subsequently won a temporary restraining order preventing the Bush administration from allocating Iraq’s frozen assets — totaling about $1.7 billion — for postwar reconstruction.

The administration fought the order, however, filing a motion with the court this month that said the frozen assets are needed to fund the ongoing rebuilding in Iraq. Mr. Bush had sent the money to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in May after major combat operations ended.

Yesterday, Judge Roberts sided with Mr. Bush, saying that in the case of Iraq, the president had authority to make the money inaccessible to the POWs.

Steve Fennell, lead attorney for the POWs and their families, called the judge’s decision “incredibly disappointing.”

Mr. Fennell said that at the heart of the decision is the fact that a phrase in an appropriations bill purportedly gives the president the authority to make inapplicable laws that apply to Iraq as a terrorist state.

Justice Department lawyers argued the president used this authority in May to make it impossible for the POWs to satisfy their judgment against Iraq, he said.

“That the Executive Branch can take a few general words buried in an appropriations bill, with no indication that Congress ever considered the implications, and claim it can legitimately take away the ability of American POWs tortured in the dungeons of Iraq to realize a measure of accountability is disheartening,” Mr. Fennell said.

Adding that Congress could not have intended “that Iraq would be rebuilt on the backs of these victims,” Mr. Fennel said the POWs will immediately appeal the judge’s decision to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

“This is an ongoing effort,” he said. “We have come too far in working to deter the torture of American POWs to turn back now.”

Retired Air Force Col. David Eberly, who was the highest-ranking member of the 17 POWs, said obtaining the $1 billion payout is not what is most important to him. “It’s not about the money,” he told reporters on Tuesday after oral arguments were given in the case.

Col. Eberly said he was fighting for the money to set a precedent for countries who violate international war-crimes rules set by the Geneva Conventions. Countries need to be held accountable if during war they break those rules by mistreating enemy prisoners, he said.

Col. Eberly added that “it’s ironic that we’re now doing battle with our own government who’s … now defending a country that we were sent into battle against.”

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