WASHINGTON — When Iran's ex-president was having his picture taken with admirers at a gala dinner sponsored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations in northern Virginia, he received an unexpected message from some of his former countrymen. It was a summons to appear at the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York in Manhattan.
On Thursday, lawyers representing seven Iranian Jewish families living in Los Angeles filed a lawsuit demanding that Mohammed Khatemi pay compensation for the disappearance of 12 of their relatives, who were detained, imprisoned, and in some cases tortured as they tried to leave Iran for Pakistan between 1994 and 1997. Mr. Khatemi became president of Iran in 1997.
The fact that Mr. Khatemi was served at all is a kind of victory for many Iranian-Americans, who were dismayed to learn that the former president had been granted a visa to launch a speaking tour in America. As if to add insult to injury, President Bush was quoted over the weekend by the Wall Street Journal as saying he personally approved the decision to grant Mr. Khatemi a visa because he was "interested" in what the ex-leader had to say.
A lawyer for the seven families, Pooya Dayanim, said the two former police officers who served Mr. Khatemi with the writs at the Gateway Marriott in Arlington, Va., reported that the turbaned cleric expressed surprise upon receiving the court document. The complaint says the depredations the plaintiffs' kin suffered were "part of a pattern and practice of systematic human rights violations that was designed, ordered, implemented, and directed by the Defendant."
"It is a win-win situation," Mr. Dayanim said. "If he does not defend himself, then we will get a default judgment. If the State Department has to come in, they will embarrass themselves. It puts the administration in a bad position of defending him in federal court against victims of torture."
However, another lawyer with expertise in national security law, Mark Zaid, said it will be difficult to persuade a court that a former head of state should stand trial in an American court.
"My inclination is to think he would possess head of state immunity, and such a determination is not based on whether we view them as an enemy of the United States or not," Mr. Zaid, who represented the families of the victims of the Pan Am 103 bombing in their case against the Libyan regime, told The New York Sun. "Foreign sovereign immunity is a principle that every nation has to abide by. When you don't, your action is reciprocated by others."
During his visit to America, Mr. Khatemi has tried to position himself as a moderate, in line with his 2000 speech at the United Nations, in which he called for a dialogue of civilizations. At the event Friday at CAIR, Mr. Khatemi said it was every Muslim's duty to condemn the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. And in an interview with Time magazine, he contradicted Iran's current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, by acknowledging that the Holocaust is a historical fact.