Government lawyers unsuccessfully swept into a courtroom this week to block testimony by ex-American hostages suing their Iranian captors – a move that officials say has nothing to do with President Bush’s broad-based coalition building in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Notwithstanding how it may appear… we’re not intervening to defend the interests of Iran," said Justice Department lawyer James Gilligan.

The former hostages are suing Iran for monetary damages after their 444-day captivity, which followed the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy in the capital city of Tehran. They say a law passed in 1996 allows Americans to sue in civil court countries on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The Justice Department said this week that the 1996 law does not trump the accord that freed the hostages in the first place. That deal barred claims against Iran arising out of the embassy seizure.

Some of the former hostages suing Iran thought the timing of the Justice Department’s attempted intervention was no coincidence. Currently, the U.S. is taking a step back from hard line attitudes toward terrorist-harboring states like Iran in hopes of building a coalition against Usama bin Laden and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that supports him.  Bin Laden is the chief suspect of terror attacks last month in New York and Virginia.

Ex-hostage Barry Rosen said the governments lawyers were playing "a surrogate role for Iran" – which was not represented in the courtroom. 

"The U.S. government ought to be ashamed of itself," Rosen said.

Presiding U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan called the Justice Department’s eleventh hour move "totally inexcusable" and "outrageous" and refused to stop the ex-hostages’ testimony. He did warn the plaintiffs that the government’s arguments against the 1996 law "are not insignificant" and will be addressed by his court later this year. 

The judge also said that "maybe one of the reasons" the government of Iran wasn’t represented at Monday’s trial is "that their actions are indefensible."

His statements followed testimonies by ex-hostages that described brutal beatings, mental degradation and harrassment.

"Retired Army Col. Charles Scott, an ex-Green Beret who was awarded a Silver Star and three Bronze Stars for his service in Vietnam, was kicked, spat on, beaten with a rubber hose while tied to a desk and led blindfolded into trees. One of his captors, he testified, had taunted him, saying "maybe we’ll send you back to the North Vietnamese."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.