NEW YORK – A federal judge has approved plans to sell a 36-story Manhattan office building and other properties owned by Iran nationwide in what will be the largest terrorism-related forfeiture ever, a prosecutor said Thursday.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Judge Katherine Forrest approved the deal between the U.S. government and 19 holders of more than $5 billion in terrorism-related judgments against the government of Iran, including claims brought by the estates of victims killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The deal calls for the Manhattan building and other forfeited assets to be sold by the U.S. Marshals Service, with the U.S. government receiving reimbursement for litigation expenses and any costs of the sales before the rest is distributed to victims of terrorist attacks. The agreement stems from a 2008 lawsuit by the government against the building's owners.
Bharara said the settlement is an important step toward "completing what will be the largest ever terrorism-related forfeiture and providing a substantial recovery for victims of terrorism."
"From the very beginning of this case," Bharara said in a release, "this office sought to dismantle Iran's slice of Manhattan — an office tower on Fifth Avenue — both to end Iran's illegal sanctions-violation and money-laundering schemes and to provide a means of compensating victims of Iranian-sponsored terrorism."
Besides Sept. 11 victims, the settling creditors include families and estates of victims of the 1983 terrorist bombings of U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut, the 1996 terrorist bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia and terrorist attacks in Israel and elsewhere.
The government said buildings also will be sold in Queens and in Houston, Carmichael, Calif., Catharpin, Va., and Rockville, Md.
Prosecutors said funds will be drawn from bank accounts formerly in the name of entities that served as fronts for the Iranian government. The properties' estimated total worth wasn't provided Thursday.
The judge ruled last September that the Manhattan office tower was subject to forfeiture because revenue from it was secretly funneled to a state-owned Iranian bank in violation of a U.S. trade embargo.
The U.S. government had said the Alavi Foundation's sole partner in the ownership of the Manhattan building was a shell company fronting for a secret interest held by the state-owned bank of Iran, Bank Melli. The Iranian government has been designated by the U.S. as a sponsor of international terrorism, an allegation it has repeatedly denied.
The judge agreed that monetary transfers by the shell company, Assa Co., to Bank Melli violated money laundering statutes.
"There is substantial, un-contradicted evidence that Assa is owned and controlled by Bank Melli and that Bank Melli is wholly owned and controlled by Iran," the judge said.
Lawyers for Alavi and Assa did not immediately return messages for comment Thursday. They said in September that they planned to appeal.
The Fifth Avenue building was built in the 1970s on property acquired by a not-for-profit corporation formed in New York by then Iranian leader Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown in 1979. It was valued at $83 million in 1989.