WASHINGTON – The family of a diplomat who was killed in an airline terrorist hijacking 19 years ago cannot claim two pieces of Montgomery County property that had been owned by the Iranian government, a court has ruled.
The decision last week by U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz is the latest twist in a multiyear legal fight by Charles Hegna’s family, which won an award of more than $370 million against the Iranian government, but has yet to collect.
Hegna was working as a diplomat for the State Department in 1984 when a Kuwait Airlines flight he was on was hijacked to Tehran, Iran, by Hezbollah terrorists, according to court documents. The hijackers shot Hegna and threw him out of the plane, making him the first American killed in a terrorist hijacking, according to published reports.
His family sued the government of Iran for the death, and was awarded $42 million in compensatory damages and $333 million in punitive damages by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
But when the family tried to get its hands on two Bethesda properties owned by Iran, the State Department stepped in.
In an Aug. 25 ruling, Motz agreed with the State Department’s claim that the properties under dispute were protected under the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic Relations, which protects property used for diplomatic or consular purposes.
Motz said that the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA) of 2002 allows the seizure of a terrorist group’s or a rogue country’s property in the United States as a form of compensation. But, he said, these so-called “blocked assets” are exempt from being taken away if they are meant for diplomatic use.
The Bethesda properties are currently being leased to the governments of Peru and the Netherlands, in order to generate income to further protect the interests of Iran in those properties, Motz said in his ruling.
“They made it very clear that they won’t give away the property,” said Craig Hegna, the son of the diplomat.
Hegna, of Potomac Falls, Va., said the U.S. government is unwilling to give away the properties given they could work as bargaining chips with Iran.
“The State Department wants to use the properties for their own means,” he said.
Attorneys from both sides declined to comment on the case, noting that it is still in litigation.
For Hegna, the legal process has been long — and frustrating.
“We’re doing our best to go forward,” he said. “At this point it’s hard to get angry anymore, it’s been going on for so long. But, definitely, it’s been very disappointing.”