A federal appeals court in Washington on Friday unanimously upheld a $413 million default judgment against Syria that stems from a terror group's beheading of two American military contractors in Iraq.
Video of the murders of Olin "Jack" Armstrong and Jack Hensley widely circulated on the Internet in 2004. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the terrorist group al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the beheadings. Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. air strike in June 2006.
Representatives of the estates of Armstrong and Hensley alleged Syria facilitated their torture and murder by providing support to Zarqawi and al-Qaida. Judge Rosemary Collyer of U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled against Syria in 2008. At the time, Syria had failed to respond to the suit.
Lawyers for Syria -- represented in the trial court by Ramsey Clark and Lawrence Schilling of New York -- later urged Collyer to vacate the default judgment for alleged constitutional and jurisdictional defects.
The attorneys said, among other things, Syria was never served the lawsuit. Syria's attorneys said no Syrian government representative received a package from the clerk's office with copies of the summons and complaint. The main substantive argument in the trial and appellate courts centered on sovereign equality of nations, Clark said.
A three judge panel on Friday affirmed the default judgment in a unanimous ruling. Writing for the court, Judge Janice Rogers Brown said: "This case arises from gruesome and memorable facts. The issues presented on appeal, however, are more mundane."
The panel -- Brown, Judge Judith Rogers and Senior Judge Laurence Silberman -- said earlier D.C. Circuit rulings have confirmed U.S. district court has jurisdiction over cases such as the suit against Syria. The appeals court spent much of its analysis exploring and rejecting Syria's claim it did not receive service of process.
A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Steven Perles of the Perles Law Firm in Washington, was not immediately reached for comment Friday afternoon. Perles said in a statement: "It is our hope that if we can collect on some of this, Syria will realize they must repudiate their support for terrorists and rejoin the civilized world."
Co-counsel for the plaintiffs, John Salter Jr. of Atlanta's Barnes Law Group, who argued for the plaintiffs in the D.C. Circuit, said in an interview he is hopeful enforcement of the judgment against Syria will serve as a costly deterrent for embracing terrorist activity.
This article first appeared on The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times.