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How One Woman's War Against Iran Could Make Legal History

For years, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner has been battling terrorists and their sponsors in the courts - has she just found her trump card?
By Ari Soffer
First Publish: 6/29/2014, 1:19 PM

Nitsana Darshan-Leitner
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner
Shurat HaDin

Nitsana Darshan-Leitner is could make history this week - and in doing so deal an unprecedented blow to the world's biggest state-sponsor of terrorism.

Her organization, Shurat HaDin - Israel Law Center, has spent the last 11 years since its founding fighting terrorism in courts throughout the world. Its campaign of "lawfare", or legal warfare, battles for the rights of terror victims by waging way on the purse-strings of terror, targeting the pockets of everyone from the terror groups themselves, to the banks which serve them, to the states which back them.

Shurat HaDin works through the US Federal Court, taking up cases for American citizens who were injured or killed in terrorist atrocities in Israel. The indefatigable Darshan-Leitner has managed to win $1.5 billion of damages so far, of which "more than $120 million" has actually been collected. It may seem like a relatively small fraction, but it is a remarkable achievement considering that most of the entities being sued do not recognize US courts or turn up to their hearings, and certainly do not willingly hand over their assets even after losing the ruling. Lawyers instead are forced to track down assets owned by the defendants to freeze and, where possible, seize them on behalf of the claimants.

Shurat HaDin has particularly targeted the government of Iran for its role in aiding and abetting terrorism; both Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad - which together have committed countless terrorist atrocities against Israeli civilians, and killed or wounded many joint US-Israeli citizens - are both directly supported by Iran. By establishing links between specific attacks which killed or maimed US citizens and the Iranian regime, Shurat HaDin has been awarded $1 billion in damages.

Unsurprisingly, the Ayatollahs have not coughed up the money, and so Darshan-Leitner has gone after assets owned by the Iranian government - anything from bank accounts frozen since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, to regime-owned properties in the US (the Iranian government has an impressive portfolio of property holdings across the US, spanning from Lubbock Texas to New York City's Fifth Avenue).

But after cleaning up the low-hanging fruit, and successfully collecting "tens of millions of dollars" in seizable assets held in the US on behalf of terror victims, Darshan-Leitner is going in for the kill: she wants to seize Iran's internet.

"The right to use the internet is worth a lot of money and is a valuable asset," she explained to Arutz Sheva, "So by freezing internet access we can force Iran to hand over the damages."

She is careful to emphasize that her action will target the Iranian regime only, and not private Iranian internet users.

"We're not looking to shut down the internet," she clarifies. "We will act against the Iranian government... I'm not going after the Iranian people, I have no war against them."

If she wins the suit and gains ownership of Iran's internet domain, lawyers will have full rights to decide who can or can't start or renew a website under the .ir domain name. That means they will have the right to deny such applications to entities linked to the Iranian regime and other terror-linked groups, and can even shut down Iranian government websites to induce them into complying with the Federal Court and pay the damages owed to terror victims. 

But how do you seize the internet? That, says Darshan-Leitner, "is a very good question."

Practically, the appeal has already been submitted and attached to the existing Federal Court ruling. It requests that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) - the California-based nonprofit organization which coordinates the Internet's global domain name system, and thus holds the rights to assign domain names (e.g. ".il" for Israel, or ".ir" for Iran) - hand over control of Iran's internet domain to lawyers acting on behalf of terror victims until the Islamic Republic pays its debts to them.

But it's not necessarily a done deal. Categorizing internet usage as a seizable asset is uncharted legal territory, as countries still struggle to define even more basic internet laws such as libel and copyright legislation.

ICANN has 10 days to respond in court to the appeal; they could agree to it, but equally they could reject the appeal, for example by claiming that such internet rights are actually held by a third party, or that internet domains simply do not qualify as seizable assets at all. In that case, Darshan-Leitner says, she'll have to bring a separate action against ICANN, which would mark the start of another lengthy legal struggle which itself has no guarantee of success.

But she remains hopeful - and the lawyer in her is equally intrigued as to the legal precedent her efforts could set.

"Its a very interesting issue, and obviously the entire law around the internet is very new... I don't think there has ever been a discussion over this issue (of using the internet as an asset)," she says. 

"It will be a very interesting legal precedent - and hopefully the answer will be on our side!"