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April 2, 2014 – Relatives of those lost on 9/11 and in the 1983 Beirut bombing celebrated the 'light at the end of the tunnel' after a judge ruled that Iranian companies must forfeit 650 Fifth Ave. to the victims.
Terrorism victims are celebrating a concrete victory in their decades-long quest to hold Iran accountable for its role in the 9/11 attacks and other horrific incidents.
They won the right last week to seize a $500 million Midtown office tower linked to Iran and are near a deal with the feds to distribute the assets of the property, lawyers said.
"This is about all the families," said Fiona Havlish, whose husband, Donald Havlish, was killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11. "There really is a light at the end of the tunnel."
The Iranian companies that own 650 Fifth Ave. must forfeit the building to the victims, who hold billions of dollars in judgments against Iran thanks to successful lawsuits over terrorism, Manhattan Federal Judge Katherine Forrest ruled Friday.
The 9/11 victims staked claims to the 36-story tower at W. 52nd St. after Manhattan Federal Judge George Daniels, in a 2011 default judgment, said Iran was partly liable for 9/11 because it provided travel support to terrorists.
The official 9/11 Commission Report mentioned Iran contact with terrorists but said, "we have no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning" of 9/11.
Some 650 Fifth Ave. claimants had relatives killed in bomb attacks in Beirut in 1983.
"This is an important step toward justice," said Lynne Derbyshire, who lost her brother, Marine Corps soldier Vincent Smith. "This isn't about putting money in my hands. It's about taking something away from the Iranian government."
Forrest separately ruled in September that the U.S. could seize the tower based on money laundering and other violations by the owners.
The U.S. now controls the building, said Dennis Pantazis, a lawyer for Havlish.
Lawyers said a deal with the feds could be unveiled very soon.
The tower will likely be sold and the proceeds divided between the claimants, possibly in the next six months to a year, they said.
The Iranian owners have vowed to appeal but the building assets could possibly be distributed while the challenge is pending, lawyers said.
The Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment Tuesday.
The tower, built in the late 1970s by a nonprofit connected to the Shah of Iran, boasts 380,000 square feet of prime Manhattan real estate.
Tenants include clothing store Juicy Couture and Godiva, the chocolate maker. Lawyers and real estate experts believe the building may be worth more than $700 million.
Relatives of Charles Hegna, an overseas U.S. employee tortured and murdered by Hezbollah brutes in Iran, may wind up with the largest chunk of the assets.
They hold liens on the building and a $42 million compensatory judgment against Iran.
Forrest has yet to rule on how much the Hegna family will receive. But the issue shouldn't hold the distribution of the assets minus the Hegna claim, lawyers said.
"I want my children to have closure," said widow Edwina Hegna. "It has been almost 30 years since my husband was murdered. We Hegnas want Iran to be held responsible."
Derbyshire, whose brother died when terrorists bombed her brother's Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, said she is willing to wait as long as it takes to seal the deal.
"This needs to send the message to all terrorists, and in this case to Iran as a state sponsor of terror, that they can't get away with murder," she said.