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A federal judge has awarded $321.4 million to the family of a U.S. Navy diver who was beaten and murdered 17 years ago by Middle Eastern air hijackers supported by Iran. But the vast majority of the money will likely never be paid. The recent ruling by Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia will allow the parents of the diver, Robert D. Stethem, and his three siblings to collect a total of $21.4 million in compensatory damages from the U.S. Treasury. The government will then try to recoup that amount from Iranian assets seized in the United States. Stethem v. Islamic Republic of Iran, No. 000159. But it is “very unlikely” that $300 million awarded in punitive damages will ever be collected, said the family’s attorney, Shale D. Stiller of Piper Rudnick’s Baltimore office. “We’d have to try to seize Iranian assets outside the U.S. — a process we haven’t even begun.” Iran sent no representative to the trial, which began in October and is the latest action against Iran for its support of the terrorist group Hezbollah. Stethem was 23 at the time of the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in June 1985. He was part of a Navy team working in Greece when he boarded the flight in Athens on his way home to Maryland. Two Hezbollah gunmen took over the plane and over 17 days forced the crew to fly several times between Beirut, Lebanon, and Algiers, Algeria. Passengers were threatened and beaten but Stethem and another Navy diver were singled out for the harshest treatment. Stethem eventually was shot in the head and pushed out of the plane on to the runway. Stiller said his witnesses — including several people who had been aboard the hijacked jet and testified to the appalling conditions and the beating of Stethem — were the key to the case. In addition, Stiller’s witness list included a number of high-powered experts on the Middle East who testified that, Stiller said, the “evidence was overwhelming” that Iran was backing the Hezbollah, or “Party of God,” a Shiite Muslim group based in Lebanon that regularly attacks Israel. The experts included Robert McFarlane, a national security advisor under President Ronald Reagan and a key player in the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal. The United States has long banned most suits against foreign countries out of concern they could lead to courts interfering in diplomacy. However, the law was changed in 1996 to permit suits against countries that sponsor terrorism, including Iran. In 2000, Congress made it simpler to collect judgments against Iran. Under Jackson’s decision, the $21.4 million will be divided, with $5 million going to each parent, $3 million to each of the two remaining brothers and one sister, and the rest going to the victim’s estate. Stiller said he had no experience in international law, but got into the case when he was recommended to the Stethem family by a friend. “I’m mostly a corporate and trial lawyer,” he said.

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