NEW YORK – The lawyer for a charity formed to promote the history and culture of Iran told a jury on Tuesday that the U.S. government was trying to destroy it by seeking to seize a skyscraper that provides most of its revenue.
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"This misguided case is looking to wipe us off the face of the planet," attorney John Gleeson told jurors at the start of a civil trial to determine the fate of the 36-story office building near Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. "Something is deeply wrong in this case."
Gleeson urged jurors to reject the arguments of Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin Bell, who said the building's operation has violated U.S. economic sanctions imposed against Iran in 1995. The U.S. government wants to turn over proceeds from a sale of the building and other properties to 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, attacks.
Gleeson said the Alavi Foundation's charity has spent millions of dollars over several decades to promote the history and culture of Iran, including through the Islamic Institute of New York and a high school in Queens attended by 300 students from 30 countries. Gleeson said it also supports schools including Columbia and Harvard universities and has made donations after an earthquake in Haiti and natural disasters elsewhere, including Superstorm Sandy in New York.
"It benefits the whole country," he said.
The government also is seeking the forfeiture of buildings in Houston; Carmichael, California; Catharpin, Virginia; and Rockville, Maryland, that are owned by the foundation, which was formed in the 1970s by then Iranian leader Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown in 1979.
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The Fifth Avenue building was erected in the 1970s on property acquired by the not-for-profit corporation. It was valued at $83 million in 1989 and has steadily risen in value.
Bell said Iran has secretly controlled the building for years as millions of dollars in rent payments are funneled to it from a partnership made up of Alavi and a shell company fronting for a secret interest held by the state-owned bank of Iran, Bank Melli.
Bell said Iran didn't make small decisions such as what color to paint the lobby but "when it came to the biggest and most important decisions, Iran called the shots."
He said trial witnesses will include a one-time Alavi board member who will describe how Iran took control of the organization.
Gleeson told jurors that the government informant, who served on the board from 1983 until 1991, will disappoint. He said the government turned to the man to build a case against Alavi when the man was unemployed and living on public assistance in Germany.
Gleeson said the U.S. government in "desperation to manufacture this case" brought him to the United States, gave him more than $750,000 and provided legal residency for his family.