Original article available online through The Virginian-Pilot.
A federal judge has ruled that Iran is liable for supporting rebels in Yemen who kidnapped a Chesapeake contractor, held him hostage for weeks and tortured him before he was brutally murdered in 2015, leaving behind a wife and seven children.
John Hamen was one of two American contractors taken by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels at Sanaa International Airport. They were on their way to work at a former Sheraton Hotel the State Department was renovating for its personnel. At the time it was being used by the United Nations after the U.S. abandoned its embassy in the war-torn nation.
Hamen was an Army veteran there to provide security while Mark McAlister was a quality control manager on the construction project. Then men were taken to an unspecified prison and Hamen was strangled to death about 16 days later, while McAlister was released for an undisclosed ransom amount about six months later, court records show.
U.S. District Judge Randoph Moss Washington ruled earlier this month that the Hamen and McAlister families should be paid by Iran more than $252 million in compensatory and punitive damages, although they likely will only receive a fraction of that through a fund set up by Congress for people who were injured as a result of an act of international terrorism by a state sponsor of terrorism.
Through an attorney, the Hamen family declined to comment. But court records detail some of the lasting impact the loss of a devoted family man with four special needs children has had on them over the years.
“I am haunted by memories of identifying John’s body, imagining the violent manner in which he died, and by the gaping hole left in my everyday life by the loss of my best friend, my husband and my (children’s) dad,” Jennifer Hamen wrote.
“My children have often asked me if we are safe and if the terrorists will come to kill us too. Some of my youngest are still afraid to go outside. My twin girls will likely never again have a birthday where they vividly remember what it felt like to learn about John’s murder.”
McAlister also is haunted by his experiences.
In a telephone interview, he said he’s experienced post traumatic stress disorder since he returned and has suffered from anxiety and depression. But the devout Christian also said he’s realized that each day he’s alive is a blessing.
Since his return, McAlister has spoken to multiple churches about his time in captivity, how he resisted efforts to convert him to Islam so he’d be released earlier, and how his faith sustained him through his darkest times.
He’s thought long and hard about what happened and now believes God wants him to use it to spread the Gospel.
“This story is not about Mark McAlister. It’s about Jesus Christ,” he said. “I believe his intention is for me to share it with the world.”
He likes to note that Hamen — who tried to help him escape — was heroic and lovingly talked about his family. McAlister is now writing a book about their experience and said his publisher thinks it may even be turned into a movie one day.
McAlister said he’s felt driven to service since his return and has spoken to a United Nations panel. Soon he will relay his experiences at the FBI Academy in Quantico.
Now, he said, he’s considering using a portion of the judgment award to help fund a run for U.S. Senate, although it’s unclear how much either family will actually receive.
“The only way we would collect the full amount is if we found assets that were known or attributable to the Islamic Republic of Iran in a location that would allow us to collect them,” said Kevin Hoffman, a Virginia Beach attorney representing the families.
“So the far more likely scenario, as far as how these families will be compensated, is something called the United States Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund.”
Money for that fund comes from forfeiture proceeds, penalties and fines related to civil and criminal cases involving prohibited transactions with state sponsors of terrorism.
The fund was established by Congress in 2015 and has paid or allocated more than $2.1 billion to victims from incidents such as the USS Cole bombing and the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, according to the Department of Justice.
But the fund only addresses compensatory damages, not punitive ones. Of the $252 million the Hamen and McAlister families were awarded, only $84 million is in compensatory damages. And the fund sets a cap on how much a family can be paid at $35 million. The fund is also limited by how much money is in it and the number of unpaid claims.
Hoffman said over the life of the fund, which is set to expire in 2026, families likely won’t receive more than 30 percent of what they’re awarded.
Still, the judgment shows the families there is some accountability for Iran, Hoffman said.
“Obviously, they’re happy to see some compensation for lost wages and loss of a loved one,” he said. “But also, they’re participating in a process here that I think is important as the international community continues to stand up to Iran and say, ‘You can’t do this. You can’t spread violence around the world like this.’ ”
Hoffman noted that the judge’s order can also increase political pressure. In the wake of the ruling, U.S. Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and James Inhofe of Oklahoma issued a statement saying that it showed Iran bears responsibility for “Houthi brutality against civilians in Yemen and their efforts to destabilize the region.”
“The Houthis’ torture and murder of an American civilian in their custody, and the Iranian regime’s support for terrorism and torture, are reprehensible behaviors consistent with outlaws from the civilized world,” the statement says.
Hoffman noted that if diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran ever thaw and Iran wants to do business here, it will have to be held financially accountable.
“They would be forced, at that point, to the answer to the Hamen family and the McAlister family for what they did,” he said. “Because they can’t just bring oil tankers over here without getting attached with the hundreds of billions of dollars that American citizens have judgments against them at this point. So while it may seem like a little bit of a fanciful idea that we could collect on this judgment now or that it would have any impact on the Iranians right now, it does, in the grand scheme of things, it makes a difference politically, economically, and obviously makes a difference to the families too.”