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Monday, February 25, 2013 - 8:02pm
Former hostages held at the American Embassy in Iran are hoping the Academy Award for Best Picture for "Argo" boosts their efforts to be paid reparations for the ordeal.
" 'Argo' was a great motion picture; it was a great story. But it's only part of the story," says former hostage Steven Lauterbach.
Unlike the six whose escape to the Canadian Embassy was featured in the movie, he was one of the 52 who were held for 444 days in the U.S. Embassy. He and other former hostages believe Iran has never been held accountable for the episode and should have to pay each of them restitution.
"We feel that we should be entitled to some compensation," he said.
Lauterbach said that during his captivity, he spent four days in solitary confinement. At the end, he was so desperate that he slashed both wrists with a broken drinking glass.
"My shirt, pants, and shoes were soaked in blood," he said. "I was prepared to die."
Attorney Tom Lankford, who has represented the hostages in court for years, is seeking about $4 million apiece in damages.
"They were beaten; they played Russian roulette with them, they stood them up against walls as if they were killing them in mock firing squads," he said. "They destroyed in many cases not only their bodies, but their souls."
Lauterbach was hospitalized and survived the grueling ordeal. But even today, he said: "I still have occasional (and sometimes not so occasional) nightmares and flashbacks. In my most common nightmare, the deal made to release us has been rescinded, and we have to go back into captivity." Even now, he said, "I get feelings of panic and claustrophobia sometimes. It's never really behind you."
The hostages were released in January 1981 under a set of agreements, the Algiers Accords, which stipulated that the hostages could not sue Iran for damages. But for years, many of them have sought compensation anyway, arguing that an agreement made under duress at gunpoint is not valid.
CNN called and e-mailed Iran's mission to the United Nations for comment but did not receive a response.
The State Department, however, has argued against breaking the agreement, saying that if the United States were to renege on the Algiers deal, the decision would call into question America's commitment to honoring all its other treaties and agreements as well.
"The United States government remains deeply grateful to the former hostages for their service to their country, and expresses its sympathy for the suffering they experienced during their ordeal," the State Department said in a statement. "As an essential condition of their release from captivity, however, the United States agreed in the Algiers Accords to bar claims by the former hostages against Iran from U.S. courts. Although we understand their frustration, we are bound by this commitment and must continue to honor it."
The courts have sided with the State Department, and in 2012, the Supreme Court declined to hear the hostages' appeal.
Now the group is pushing Congress for an alternative. Instead of being compensated with Iranian government money, which sits in frozen accounts, they propose using money collected from fines against companies caught violating the embargo against Iran.
"Even though these fines will probably not come directly from the Iranians," says Lauterbach, "I think it will to some degree right a wrong."
As part of their efforts to persuade lawmakers, the group is assembling a package of testimonials from the former hostages.
One former hostage who will not be able to tell Congress his story: former CIA agent Phillip Ward, who committed suicide in October. He was beaten in his cell and subjected to mock executions during captivity, and after his release, he became a recluse and an alcoholic, according to Lankford. "In reality, his life was taken from him 33 years ago," he said.