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JUNE 8, 2012 – TEL AVIV – May 30, 2012, marked the 40th anniversary of the Lod Airport Massacre, which killed 26 people, including two Japanese Red Army (JRA) terrorists, and wounded 80. Among the victims were American and Puerto Rican Christian pilgrims as well as Canadian citizen Lonna Sabah.
The JRA and the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed credit for the attack. According to evidence, however, North Korea was directly responsible, having provided weapons as well as financial and logistical support. The terrorists, who had arrived on an Air France flight from Paris and drew automatic guns and hand grenades, fired randomly.
Shurat HaDin – the Israel Law Centre, an Israel-based civil rights organization – achieved a major victory in this case in 2010. Representing Puerto Rican families in suing North Korea for its responsibility in financing, training and sponsoring the Japanese Red Army terrorists, it won a lawsuit in a US federal court. North Korea was ordered to pay $378 million to the victims.
Ze’ev Sarig, former managing director of Lod Airport, told the Jewish Tribune in a telephone conversation that winning the case was a “great achievement.”
According to Sarig, an eyewitness to the attack who testified at an American federal court in Puerto Rico, Shurat HaDin “succeeded to win the case, which really is a sign to those terrorist regimes that support terrorist criminals to kill innocent people. They should know that nobody will let them go until they pay. In this case, the JRA was trained in North Korea and sent by the PLO to kill innocent passengers – as many as possible.
“At the time, airport security was focused on Palestinian suicide bombers and on cargo and suitcases going on a plane. Other airports didn’t have security at all. That for us was our 9/11 wake-up call. Since that time, the concept of security at Ben Gurion Airport changed, and it is now considered one of the safest airports in the world.”
Shurat HaDin is a non-profit organization and its lawyers receive modest salaries. Its goal is “to bankrupt terror groups and grind their criminal activities to a halt – one lawsuit at a time.”
Seven Israeli lawyers, headed by lawyer Nitsana Darshan-Leitner – who last month was also awarded the Moskowitz Prize for Zionism’s Lion of Zion Award at Jerusalem’s City of David last month – are solely volunteers, and their work is funded by donations.
Established in 2003, Shurat HaDin is unaffiliated with any political party or governmental body. Working together with western intelligence agencies and volunteer lawyers around the world, it has won more than $1 billion in judgments, freezing more than $600 million in terrorist assets and collecting $120 million in payments that went directly to the victims and their families.
Darshan-Leitner, 37, a graduate of Bar-Ilan University Law Faculty with an MBA from Manchester University, as well as a mother of six young children, has been leading the legal fight against terror since 1997.
“We didn’t know if we could really do it,” she told the Tribune in an interview at her unadorned office. “At the beginning of the Intifada, we thought, as lawyers, that there has to be a way to fight it [terrorism] legally in the courts. But before that, nobody brought lawsuits before the courts, and we had no idea about addresses for terror groups…. Where do you go? How do you serve a country like North Korea that has no diplomatic relationship? How do you prove liability? There isn’t always [physical] evidence. How do you prove the state sponsored it?
“And the biggest question of them all: if you get a judgment, how do you collect?
“But we were determined to try. We’re young lawyers, and we took on these cases ourselves. We tried against Iran, the PA, Syria – in Israel and the US….
“The regimes don’t even come to court,” she conceded. “But you can go to their assets in third-party hands, such as bank accounts, real estate and stock portfolios. For example, in 2004, we froze Iranian bank accounts in the US. The State Department opposed it, so we needed to hire a lobby. We hired a former undersecretary of state, Stuart Eizenstat, who helped us to pass a law in Congress that overrode the State Department….
“We also found a house that belonged to the son of the former Shah. After the Islamic Revolution, the house was nationalized and confiscated by the Iranian government. They forced sale of the house and gave us the money.”
According to Darshan-Leitner, “to a large extent,” Shurat HaDin prevented another anti-Israel Turkish flotilla from travelling to Gaza. “We can’t take all the credit, but we played a big part in it.”
In 2011, a year after the infamous Mavi Marmara incident, Shurat HaDin sent letters warning insurance companies against insuring boats sailing towards Gaza, citing liability risks. Consequently, the Turkish ships were unable to obtain maritime insurance, thus preventing them from leading a new flotilla.
“We live in this country,” she stated. “We raise our kids in this country. We can’t let them [terrorists] kill people and go free. They have to know there is a price for Jewish blood, and in the end they’ll have to pay. Also, it’s something governments cannot do,” she said, citing “political constraints.”
Just days before the interview, Israel caved in to the demands of about 2,000 Palestinian prisoners, who were into their 77th day of a hunger strike and agreed to ease their conditions.
“Israel made a mistake,” Darshan-Leitner said. “A prisoner release deal is the wrong thing to do. Israel is always afraid of a humanitarian crisis, whether in Gaza or in their own prisons.
“However, Israel should really let them starve to death. Israel gives them the best conditions that any prison in the world would give to beasts, to sub-human creatures. It’s not good that prisoners are dying in jail; when a prisoner commits suicide, it’s the responsibility of the prison authorities, so a hunger strike is a problem. But to agree to be extorted by a hunger strike is a mistake.
“Two months ago, a terrorist prisoner was put in administrative detention and went on a hunger strike – saying, either put me to trial or let me go – so they let him go. They saw it works.”
She also disagreed with the exchange of hundreds of terrorist prisoners for Israeli captive Gilad Shalit.
“As someone who represents hundreds of terror victims, [I believe that] they deserve to see the one who devastated their lives rot in jail. It’s the only thing the legal system can provide for them. This is from the terror victims’ perspective. But when you release them, you put back senior terrorists [who are] a danger to the population…and putting thousands and tens of thousands in danger. It encourages them to do it again.”
In Canada, a bill submitted by the government in 2009 permitting Canadian victims of terror to sue state sponsors was inspired by a lecture delivered by Darshan-Leitner in Toronto in 2002. Attorney Aaron Blumenfeld had attended the program and, according to Shurat HaDin’s web site, he “was excited by the legal possibilities of using the courts to fight terror…and he wanted to work on enacting legislation in Canada that would mirror the American laws that allowed victims to pursue outlaw regimes through civil actions. Together with the then newly formed Canadian Coalition Against Terror (CCAT) they began the difficult work of speaking to legislators, building up public support, lobbying the cabinet, raising funds and drafting bills.”