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For terror victim’s dad, a cold case thaws
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For terror victim’s dad, a cold case thaws

Steve Flatow’s quest for justice ensnares French banking giant

Stephen Flatow and his daughter, Alisa; her 1995 murder by Islamic Jihadi terrorists spurred his dogged search for justice.
Stephen Flatow and his daughter, Alisa; her 1995 murder by Islamic Jihadi terrorists spurred his dogged search for justice.

As more and more bleak news from Israel continues to chill hearts here, the parents of four murdered boys — three Jews and one Arab — will have to learn how to live without them.

It is a pain they will feel forever, but they will learn to manage somehow, each in his or her own way.

Stephen Flatow knows this pain all too well, and models a way to take grief, fashion it into a lance, and wield it powerfully in his quest for justice. Ever since his daughter, Alisa — a Brandeis student who was spending her junior year abroad in Israel — was killed by Islamic Jihad terrorists in 1995, Flatow has fought to make her murderers, and the terrorist state that supported them, pay for her death.

That effort resulted this month in front-page stories: Leaders of BNP Paribas, the huge French bank, pleaded guilty to doing business with countries that are not allowed to trade with the United States — and to lying about doing so. They agreed to pay an $8.9 billion penalty, the largest fine ever assessed for that reason.

The Paribas case is the unplanned result of a legal battle Flatow — a lawyer who lives in West Orange and works in Jersey City — and his team have fought since Alisa’s murder. Islamic Jihad took responsibility for the bombing of the bus near the Gaza settlement of Kfar Darom, and the U.S. State Department said that the Iranian government had funded the terrorists. Flatow’s team got federal legislation enacted that allowed them to proceed with their suit against the government of Iran. No government representatives “ever appeared to answer to defend themselves,” Flatow said. “We satisfactorily proved to the judge that they were responsible, and he awarded us a judgment of $250 million.”

The money has never been paid.

“When a client gets a judgment, you try to enforce it,” Flatow said. He could not. “My two attorneys started to identify Iranian assets. First we went to Washington and located state property. When we tried to attach it, the State Department, which until then had been very good to us, became our worst enemy.”

Once it was clear that the U.S. government would not allow the Flatows to go anywhere near Iranian government property, “we knew we had to locate commercial assets,” Flatow said.

He and his team found some Iranian commercial assets in Maryland and then began to look at New York City records. “We got the idea that the Iranian government owned a big skyscraper in Manhattan,” he said. It did: the Piaget Building, held by the Alavi Foundation. (In April 2014, the U.S. Justice Department, claiming the foundation was controlled by the Iranian government, seized the skyscraper and said proceeds from the sale of the building would go to victims of Iran-backed attacks.)

In 1999, however, “we go to federal district court, and we say that we have a judgment against the Iranian government, and the Alavi foundation is part and parcel of it,” Flatow said. “And the Department of Justice says, ‘Not so fast.’ You have to show the government’s day-to-day control of the foundation in order to pierce the protection of sovereign immunity.” 

“It was politics,” he added. “Madeleine Albright” — President Bill Clinton’s secretary of state — “was hell-bent on restoring some kind of normalcy with Iran. She wanted to do it by lifting duties from caviar, pistachios, and Persian carpets.”

Unsurprisingly, that effort did not work, but it did delay Flatow’s work against Iran by a decade or so. He lost in court when he tried to press his case. “We had our clock cleaned,” he said.

A brainstorm

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, however, the federal government became interested in tracing terrorists’ funding.

“Someone had the brainstorm of bringing in a former military man from Israel as a consultant,” Flatow said. Hired by the New York County District Attorney’s Office, Eitan Arusy started investigating. He “turned out to be far more than he seemed,” said Flatow. “He had investigated Alisa’s bombing at Kfar Darom. He’s looking at these connections. He recognizes her name.”

Arusy followed the money trail up to a point, “but then it went entirely cold.” 

Eventually, prosecutors realized some banks, include Credit Suisse and Lloyds, were substituting other names for the Alavi Foundation. 

In 2009, a whistleblower implicated BNP Paribas. “They were able to keep on doing it until everything started to unwind,” Flatow said. “Then the story tumbles downhill.”

On June 30, Paribas plead guilty to violating U.S. law by going to “elaborate lengths” to conceal billions of dollars of transactions on behalf of Iranian, Sudanese, and Cuban entities subject to U.S. economic sanctions, according to the Justice Department. The bank engaged in more than $650 million of transactions involving Iranian oil companies.

To some extent, Flatow’s interest in the settlement is almost academic. BNP Paribas, not the Iranian government, will pay the huge fine — which is not so huge for a bank of its size. According to the Washington Post, about half the $8.9 billion fine will go to the Justice Department and the Federal Reserve, while the remainder will be divided among New York State authorities. Any portion divided up among many hundreds of terror victims will not go very far.

Meanwhile, Flatow — who with his wife Roz has four living children and 15 grandchildren — said that “Alisa is locked in at 20.” This year she would have turned 40.

“Back in 1997, my daughter Ilana stood in for me at a rally in Manhattan,” he said. “She began by saying, ‘My name is Ilana Flatow, and in a few months I will be older than my older sister.’”

Not only does he have some idea of how the families of all the murdered young men feel now — and will feel as time plays its sometimes welcome, sometimes agonizing tricks on them — but he also has a special connection to one of the families.

Rabbanit Rachel Sprecher Frenkel, the mother of victim Naftali Frenkel, 16, teaches at Nishmat in Jerusalem. That is where Alisa was studying when she was killed; there is now a building and a program at Nishmat, endowed by her family, dedicated to her.

He is vehement about the truth that he still is Alisa’s father. “I will not let anyone say that I was her father. I still am,” he said.

He talks about his relationship with President Clinton. “He might have been a philanderer, he might have been corrupt, but he called me,” Flatow said.

He recalled one conversation in particular: Clinton told Flatow that “my wife and I were talking at breakfast about how brave a man you are” for refusing to give up what seemed at many points to be a quixotic quest. “I said, ‘Mr. President, wouldn’t you do anything for your daughter? Just because Alisa is dead, she hasn’t stopped being my daughter.’”

He has one last piece of hard-won advice for other parents. “I finish every conversation with my kids by saying, ‘I love you.’ You never know when it will be the last conversation.” 

This story appears courtesy of the Jewish Standard, where a version of it first appeared.

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