Giving victims a voice

When it comes to fighting terror, Richard Heideman means business. He and his law firm, Heideman Nudelman & Kalik, have been busy suing state sponsors of terrorism such as Libya, Iran and Syria.

Richard Heideman  (photo credit: Geoff Chesman visual)
Richard Heideman
(photo credit: Geoff Chesman visual)
While walking on campus at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, one day, Richard Heideman saw an advertisement for a program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem focusing on the legal aspects of the Middle East conflict. Most students walk by without a second thought; however, Heideman is not most students and this poster would go on to not only change his life but affect the course of history, the war on terror and the international legal system.
Heideman and his wife, Phyllis, came to Israel on this program multiple times, even returning after Heideman’s graduation, taking advantage of the opportunity to interface with the Jewish state’s people and be exposed to realities on the ground. These experiences left an indelible mark – making the comparative law of Israel and its neighbors, and the legal aspects of the Middle East conflict, in his words, “part of my DNA.”
The years of the second intifada saw an incredible amount of violence across Israel.
Suicide bombings were a constant threat – hitting packed buses, busy cafes, pizza parlors and nightclubs. Hundreds of innocent civilians were killed and millions lived in fear. These events affected people in many ways, but for Heideman, he felt he had to do something. He and his law firm, Heideman Nudelman & Kalik, decided to take on American victims of terrorism as clients, suing state sponsors of terrorism such as Libya, Iran and Syria. While a state usually has immunity, a 1996 amendment to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act allows Americans to sue countries identified as sponsors of terrorism by the US State Department.
Over the last decade, his firm has brought lawsuits to federal court on behalf of the victims, working with the State Department, members of Congress, other lawyers and the White House, with Heideman sometimes serving as the lead trial counsel.
His goal, Heideman says, is not just winning financial compensation, but punishing countries that sponsor terror, in addition to serving as a deterrent against continuing such sponsorship. While acknowledging that the financial settlements are important, the real purpose, according to Heideman, is twofold: to give victims of terror a voice, and to influence states that sponsor terror to change their behavior.
He cites Libya as a case in which they had great success: while they did pay a hefty sum to the victims (approximately $1.5 billion), ultimately Libya stopped its nuclear activities and agreed to turn over its weapons of mass destruction. Heideman described these judicial efforts as a crucial part of the international war on terrorism.
While critics question whether these judgments truly affect the sponsorship of terrorism in any meaningful way, they agree that any measure toward combating terrorism is a positive, if not symbolic message. Characterizing the work as demanding and time-consuming, Heideman also describes it as some of the most fulfilling work he has ever done. Helping victims of terrorism by giving them a voice and a sense of justice makes it worth all the sacrifices, he adds.
Heideman points to his compassion for innocents and pursuit of justice as what drives him. At a recent lecture and launch for his new book, The Hague Odyssey: Israel’s Struggle for Security on the Front Lines of Terrorism and Her Battle for Justice at the United Nations, he called for the world to stand up and hold Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity, as “failing to do so is a travesty of justice.”
“This whole thing is really about the world not tolerating attacks on innocents, about standing up for the victims of the atrocities and massacres committed by the Assad regime,” says Heideman.
He takes the international community to task for its lack of outcry on the issue, asking “Why should Assad be treated any differently than the world treated [Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi? Why is his conduct tolerated?” Syria has been on the US State Department list of state sponsors of terror since 1979, and has continued acting as a terrorist and terror- supporting state through today. So what actions should be taken? According to Heideman, the claims of the victims should be brought to “one court or another, and the governments of the world need to stop dithering at the UN and start doing.” While many are weary of trying to bring down the Assad regime, Heideman feels the international community needs to concentrate on helping a new Syria emerge, with a full court press to help ensure democracy and dignity for all Syrians. This includes global intervention – at least, he concedes, on humanitarian grounds to help save lives.
While the US mulls giving more arms to the rebels and delayed a vote on action to punish Syria for crossing President Barack Obama’s red line, finally culminating in a joint agreement with Russia to seize the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal, Heideman declares that the rebels need to be given far more support without delay. When confronted with the question as to the unknown nature of the rebels, the serious allegations that they too are violating human rights, and the fact that some of the most organized elements are violent Islamist extremists, Heideman replies that if one were to use the symbol of the scales of justice and put the irrefutable evidence of the Assad regimes (that of Bashar and his father, Hafez) against that of the rebels, their violence against their own people and clear support for terrorist organizations far outweighs what we know about the rebels. He is “willing to take my chances with the rebels, in hopes we can build a better day for the Syrian people.”
Heideman acknowledges there will likely be an adjustment period and that there is potential for the situation to worsen, but is adamant that the devil we know must be worse than the devil we do not. Arguably an optimist, when asked about any remaining Jews left in Syria, he expresses hope that whoever ends up in control of Syria will respect the country’s Jewish minority and people of all religions.
Ultimately, Heideman is a true believer in the legal system, exuding the optimism of a recent law-school graduate; he calls it an essential tool for fighting terrorism. “The world needs to stand up for the victims of this terrorism. Not to do so is a travesty of justice.”