American Imprisoned by Iran Files RICO Suit Against Iranian Officials

Suit is designed to ratchet up international pressure against Iran's hostage-taking

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani / Getty Images
July 19, 2018

A dual Iranian-American citizen who was imprisoned in northern Iran for roughly a year has filed a federal racketeering lawsuit against the Iranian government and several top officials in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who he holds responsible for his unjust arrest and detention.

Gholamrez "Reza" Shahini, the former prisoner in Iran who goes by "Robin," filed the formal legal action to document and officially object to the torture and suffering he says he endured for more than a year in Amirabad prison in northern Iran.

The suit provides a detailed account of Shahini’s travails in the Iranian penal system, including sleep deprivation, interrogation, solitary confinement, painful shackling, malnutrition, and denial of medical care.

It follows at least two other lawsuits filed by former Americans or dual nationals against Iran, including legal action by Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post's former bureau chief in Tehran.

The suit, which was filed in D.C. District Court July 10, is designed to ratchet up international pressure on Iran as there is little chance that the Iranian government would extradite the top officials to face prosecution in the U.S.

In addition to seeking redress for personal injuries, Shahini's attorney Jeremy Ibrahim says the complaint is aimed at establishing a legal record in U.S. courts against key Iranian officials responsible for the hostage-taking of numerous citizens from western countries. A ruling in Shahini's favor could then be used to justify additional sanctions from international bodies, such as the United Nations, and other countries, Ibrahim said.

"It's Robin's hope that other countries—the hostages and their families—take similar action so that there's a group effort to build up pressure from every angle to make sure that our governments hold Iran responsible for taking our citizens hostage," Ibrahim told the Washington Free Beacon.

Ibrahim says the suit is unique in that it uses the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly referred to as the RICO Act. RICO prosecutions are typically used in mafia or drug cartel cases to hold leaders of a criminal syndicate accountable for the actions they ordered others to carry out.

It specifically names as defendants: Hossein Taeb, the head of the IRGC's intelligence bureau; Mohammad Ali Jafari, the IRGC commander; and Sadeq Ardeshir Larijani, the chief justice or Iran's judicial system; as well as other high-ranking IRGC officials.

To demonstrate a pattern of "actual or threatened kidnapping and murder," the suit lists 15 additional unnamed U.S. victims of the same type of unjust IRGC arrests and treatment who have been imprisoned, including Rezaian and the three other Americans released in early 2016 as part of the nuclear deal negotiations.

Shahini was born in Iran and emigrated to the United States as a refugee in 2000, becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2005. In late May 2016, he was traveling to Iran to visit his ailing mother and relatives when members of the IRGC arrested him. Shahini obtained an authorization to travel to Iran through the Iranian Interests Section of the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Iranian courts released Shahini, a 46-year-old and a 2016 graduate of San Diego State University, from the jail on $62,000 in bail in April of 2017, according to several media reports. He was serving an 18-year sentence for "collaboration with a hostile government."

He has not publicly disclosed how he left Iran and returned to the United States, and his lawyers have declined to comment on that aspect of his case.

According to the lawsuit, at one point during his imprisonment, two violent criminals attacked Shahini using a handmade garrote and "inflicted serious physical injury and emotional trauma," an attack the complaint alleges was "at the direction of Iran." Prison officials also repeatedly took him to a room reserved for inmates awaiting the imposition of their death sentences in order "to enhance the consistent climate of terror," and threatened to allow inmates to rape him if he did not confess to being a CIA spy, according to the lawsuit.

Shahini was denied consular services, access to a lawyer, or calls or visits from family, the suit alleges.

"Robin has taken this very aggressive path of identifying this action for what it is—you see the pattern conduct and the collusion that has gone on, which qualifies as racketeering," Ibrahim said.

Iran is continuing to take western citizens hostage because "that's where the cash is—you're worth your weight in gold—and some people are worth more—$1.7 billion," Ibrahim added.

Rezaian was imprisoned for 544 days in Iran during the nuclear negotiations that took place between the Obama administration, Iranian officials, and several other western powers.

Like Rezaian's lawsuit, Shahini's legal complaint accuses Iranian authorities of using him and other dual Iranian-American nations as leverage for additional possible cash payments from the United States.

Rezaian and three other Americans were released from prison in January 2016 the same day Washington paid $400 million in cash to Iran, the first installment of $1.7 billion settlement of a decades-old claim on the money.

Amir Hekmati, a Marine veteran who was incarcerated in Iran for four years before being freed with Rezaian, also sued Iran in May 2016. Last fall a U.S. judge ordered the government to pay Hekmati, an Iranian-American from Michigan, $63 million in damages for his unjust detention and suffering. The Iranian government did not respond to the lawsuits.

Published under: Iran , Iran Nuclear Deal