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Game developer Amir Hekmati sues Iran, alleging torture during years of captivity

Complaint mentions 'prolonged physical and psychological torture'

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine and game developer who was jailed in Iran for nearly four and a half years, is suing the country for false imprisonment, and personal injury stemming from torture that he allegedly underwent during his captivity.

Hekmati, 32, an American of Iranian descent, was visiting family in Iran in August 2011 when he was arrested by Iranian officials. The United Nations and the U.S. government, including the State Department and President Obama, repeatedly called for his release. He was detained until January 2016, when Iran released him and three other U.S. citizens in a prisoner exchange.

The lawsuit, Hekmati v. Iran, was filed May 9 in federal district court. It includes specific descriptions of the treatment he allegedly received while imprisoned, and asks for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. The U.S. government is not a party to the suit.

"While Mr. Hekmati was in Iran's custody and control, Iran intentionally subjected Mr. Hekmati to four and a half years of severe pain and suffering, including solitary confinement, physical and mental abuse, and threats against his life, all with the intent to obtain a false confession and coerce his cooperation," the lawsuit reads.

Hekmati served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2001-05, completing two tours in Iraq. He later worked for Kuma Reality Games, a game studio that the U.S. Department of Defense contracted to build a language-learning video game. The Iranian government charged Hekmati with being a spy for the CIA, a claim that his family and the CIA denied.

According to the lawsuit, after months of torturing Hekmati, Iranian officials demanded that he admit to working for the CIA. They told him they would release him if he complied; he did, and recorded a video in December 2011 that was allegedly broadcast in Iran as a coerced confession. Based on that so-called confession, he was sentenced to death after a 15-minute trial behind closed doors in January 2012; the sentence was reduced after a March 2012 retrial to a 10-year prison term.

All the while, the lawsuit charges, Hekmati was subjected to "prolonged physical and psychological torture" by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence.

Hekmati was tortured and kept in solitary confinement for 17 months

"The torture that Mr. Hekmati endured included being whipped at the bottom of his feet, struck by an electrical Taser to his kidney area, forced to stay in stress positions for hours at a time, and hit with batons," the lawsuit says. His captors allegedly deprived him of sleep, gave him addictive drugs and allowed him to leave his 1-meter by 1.5-meter (3 feet by 5 feet) cell "for only 20 minutes every 3 days, and even then, it was only to take a freezing cold shower." This continued for 17 months, according to Hekmati's lawyers.

The complaint notes that Hekmati has suffered post-traumatic stress disorder "and other lasting psychological damage" from his ordeal, and adds that he is now "jobless and suffering the financial effects of being robbed of four and a half years of income and the master's degree he had intended to obtain before his imprisonment."

"Amir can never be adequately compensated for his suffering"

"Amir can never be adequately compensated for his suffering and the lasting impact that this has had, and will have, on the rest of his life," said Scott D. Gilbert, one of Hekmati's attorneys, in a statement. "Our intention, with the filing of this lawsuit, is to attempt to provide at least some measure of justice for Amir and his family."

It could be difficult for Hekmati to receive recognition from Iran of any U.S. court ruling in this case, let alone compensation. Iran and the U.S. have not had direct diplomatic relations since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

CNN notes that foreign governments "generally have immunity from civil [suits] in U.S. courts" under the Foreign Sovereigns Immunities Act of 1976, although there is an exception for U.S. victims of terrorism if the federal government considers the foreign country in question a state sponsor of terrorism — which is the case for Iran. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month that the families of victims of the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, and other terrorist attacks linked to Iran, can collect nearly $2 billion in frozen Iranian assets.

"It's actually relatively easy to sue these countries under the FSIA today," law professor Steve Vladeck told CNN, "although it's often hard to prove the case on the merits — to tie the country to the specific act of terrorism — and even if a plaintiff can do that, collecting a money judgment is next to impossible."