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WASHINGTON - Iranian-born Ghollam Nikbin says he is nearing the justice he has longed for since he sued Iran and its former president in federal court three years ago, alleging he was tortured for converting to Mormonism.
In a federal court hearing Friday, Nikbin testified in graphic detail about the abuse he endured for several years in Iran for abandoning Islam. He and experts also testified about the lingering effects, which include almost nightly nightmares.
The hearing was a formality. Iran has not answered the claims, and Nikbin is assured victory.
He is seeking about $40 million in damages.
Whether he will collect remains uncertain, but Nikbin is optimistic.
"I'm going to get justice," he told The Tribune after the hearing. "All the money is going to be spent for destroying the Islamic Republic of Iran" and the men who tortured him.
Nikbin's story began in 1975, when he came to the United States on a scholarship. He earned an MBA and landed a job at Merrill Lynch in New York City in 1979, the same year a revolution in Iran installed a strict theocracy there.
He fell in love with a Utah woman who was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He converted to the faith and was baptized in Murray. He and the woman married in 1982. They divorced in 1985, but NikĀbin stayed and became a U.S. citizen in 1991.
Two years later, he returned to Iran to be with his family. His mother and sister arranged a marriage for him, but the Munkerat, a government agency that enforces Islamic law, raided the ceremony after agents spied young boys dancing with their mothers, a violation of Islamic code.
Nikbin says he was lashed 40 times and suffered cuts all over his body.
From that moment, he said, "It was in my blood, the hate for that government."
He spoke out against the government wherever he went. As he was returning to America in 1995, he was detained at the airport and taken to a prison.
"They questioned me that I change my religion and I deny it," Nikbin said. Days later interrogators confronted him with a Mormon baptism certificate they likely found in his home.
His captors bound his bare feet and whipped them with an electrical cord until his feet were bloodied and numb, he says. He couldn't walk for days, he testified.
Weeks later, he was brought before a cleric, who pronounced death by beheading.
"Every time I heard someone walking in the [prison] hallway, I thought, 'It was my turn,' " Nikbin testified.
After months in prison, friends suggested he fake mental illness so he could claim he was insane when he converted and he might be spared. Nikbin was sent to an asylum, forcibly drugged and left in a stupor. He was shipped to another jail, where he nearly died before his brother and friends bought his freedom, he said.
Nikbin fled Iran in 1998 but he was tortured again, by guards at the airport.
Back in the United States, Nikbin started a desperate campaign to get his family out of Iran, eventually succeeding with help from Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Today, Nikbin suffers severe mental scars from his time in captivity, psychiatrist Howard Berens testified. He is depressed, moody and withdrawn. He fears for his safety and sometimes suffers flashbacks.
"I do have a nightmare every night," Nikbin said. "On the street . . . on the subway, if my mind goes where it's not supposed to go, my tears come out without my control."
The tears also came out after the hearing Friday when he talked about his daughter, now 12, a straight-A student who lives with his ex-wife. He said he lives in fear the Iranian government might kill her.
In another U.S. District Court room Friday, a judge heard from an Iranian seeking $1.2 billion, claiming Iranian agents assassinated his prominent grandfather and took his fortune.
Iran won't fight the cases, but collecting damages is difficult, said Sean Murphy, a professor of international law at George Washington University. Most countries cannot be sued under international law, but U.S. law has an exception for Iran and others deemed sponsors of terrorism by the State Department.
When the lawsuits were first allowed, some plaintiffs were able to recover damages by locating Iranian assets left in the United States, but those were quickly tapped out.
"It's a tough situation, because often these are compelling stories and you say, 'Wow, they should be able to get some compensation.' But there's not much there to get, so in most cases they aren't vindicated," Murphy said.
Judge John Bates will likely award damages to Nikbin this spring or summer. Nikbin's attorney, William Pepper, said he is certain Nikbin will collect his judgment by finding Iranian holdings in other countries and getting foreign courts to recognize the U.S. ruling.
"The process is effective if you know how to do it," said Pepper. "Most American lawyers just don't know how to do it."
But Murphy said foreign courts are unlikely to recognize the U.S. exception to Iran's immunity.
Today, Nikbin lives with a brother in New York City. The effects of his ordeal, he said, make holding a job difficult. He currently works at a friend's nightclub.