Adrian Humphreys | Nov 1, 2012 1:00 AM ET
More from Adrian Humphreys | @AD_Humphreys
An Ontario judge has issued a restraining order against Iran’s property in Canada — including its embassy in Ottawa and a former cultural centre in Toronto — as the family of an American woman killed in a terrorist attack tries to collect a $13-million judgment by a U.S. court from a wrongful death claim against Iran’s security agency.
Three properties were frozen, ensuring they are not sold or transferred, until court can decide whether they should be forfeited to the victim’s family to help satisfy the U.S. court award. The property is owned by the government of Iran or by an “alter ego” used “as a front” for Iran, court heard.
Justice Beth Allen of the Ontario Superior Court found that a case exists that Iran has title, either legally or beneficially, to the three properties, an initial success for the family of Marla Bennett. Ms. Bennett of San Diego was killed in 2002 in a bomb attack on the Hebrew University campus in Jerusalem, where she was a graduate student in Judaic studies. She was 24.
A U.S. court declared Hamas responsible for the attack. Hamas is classified as a terrorist group in Canada and the U.S.
“It is undisputed that members of Hamas committed this extrajudicial killing of Marla Bennett, and indeed took credit for it,” ruled U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth in 2007.
Further, Judge Lamberth ruled: “Iran has continuously provided material support to and sponsorship of Hamas and its members so that they may undertake terrorist attacks like the one in this action.”
Iran and the Iranian Ministry of Information and Security were ordered to pay Ms. Bennett’s parents and sister $12,904,548. Winning that case, however, was the easy part. Collecting the money has proved challenging.
“The plaintiffs have not been able to enforce the U.S. Judgment against Iranian assets in the U.S.,” wrote Judge Allen. The family has turned its attention to Iran’s assets here.
The Canadian properties at issue are:
- A large, four-storey building surrounded by a high metal fence at 245 Metcalfe Street in Ottawa, that housed Iran’s embassy until ordered closed last month by the Canadian government;
- A one-storey backsplit converted into offices at 290 Sheppard Avenue West in Toronto, that operated as the Centre for Iranian Studies but is currently available for lease;
- A long, industrial building at 2 Robinson Avenue in Ottawa, near the University of Ottawa, operated as the Iranian Cultural Centre but, court heard, during renovations after its purchase in 1998, the applicant identified on the building permit was the “Islamic Republic of Iran.”
The Ontario court heard evidence from Thomas Fay, a U.S. attorney, that Iran aggressively protects its assets from legal seizure.
“Iran declines to participate in U.S. court proceedings until enforcement efforts are made. Then Iran gets involved for the purpose of doing whatever it can to avoid enforcement,” he told court.
Other financial judgments in the U.S. against Iran were followed by the removal of the assets from the country, he said.
Professor Farrokh Zandi, an economics professor at York University and president of the Iranian-Canadian Congress, told court that Iran uses various ploys to evade international sanctions and seizures.
Mr. Zandhi said Iran uses corporations outside Iran who do business with third-party entities in countries that have not imposed sanctions, and uses individuals and companies that do not appear to be agents of Iran.
“Iran uses cultural centres to cloak the involvement of the Iranian government and government officials in promoting Iranian interests,” he told court.
It is undisputed that members of Hamas committed this extrajudicial killing of Marla Bennett, and indeed took credit for it
The unusual Ontario case has already faced difficulties.
Although a motion to have the U.S. judgment recognized in Ontario was filed Sept. 13, the family’s lawyers could not serve Iranian officials because of severed diplomatic ties.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird announced Sept. 7 he had closed Canada’s embassy in Tehran and gave Iranian diplomats five days to leave Ottawa.
Lawyers for Ms. Bennett’s family were trying to serve notice to Iranian officials through Canada’s Foreign Affairs.
No representative of Iran appeared at the hearing or offered submissions. An official could not be reached for comment.
Court heard that other than the embassy, the properties were not officially listed as Iranian government property.
The Toronto property is held by Farhangeiran Inc., court heard, a company with deep ties to the Iranian state. The president is Fazel Larijani, of a prominent family in Iran, court heard. Mr. Larijani was once Iran’s cultural attaché to Canada; a brother was Speaker of Iran’s Parliament, and another brother the current head of Iran’s judiciary.
The building is currently available for lease for $3,590 a month.
It has nine rooms and a reception and is ready to move in, says the advertisement, but Daniel Nakhlestani, its real estate agent, declined to talk about its ownership.
“Someone called me asking for my services, it’s my job. I’m just a real estate agent. It is property and someone listed it and I don’t know about this,” he said when told of the court actions.
He said he has not been contacted by authorities.
The Robinson Avenue property is legally owned by the Mobin Foundation but at the time of its sale it was named as a government of Iran property, court heard.
The findings, Judge Allen said, can be challenged when the full motion is heard.
John Adair, the Toronto lawyer for the Bennett family, declined to comment while the case is pending.