As Iran condemns British 'piracy', Israeli organisation launches legal bid to seize Grace 1
An Israeli activist organisation reportedly linked to the country's feared Mossad intelligence service on Tuesday lodged a claim in Gibraltar's Supreme Court in a bid to seize the supertanker Grace 1 and sell it to compensate victims of terrorism.
Shurat HaDin is asking the court to enforce a 2017 default judgement from the US District Court of Columbia making the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Iranian Ministry of Information and Security, and the Syrian Arab Republic liable for compensation totaling $178,500,000.
The development came amid intense diplomatic efforts to defuse tension in the Gulf region as Iran again called for the release of the ship and accused the UK of "piracy".
At the heart of Shurat HaDin's claim is a US judgement stemming from a terrorist attack in October 2014, in which Palestinian Abdelrahman Shaludi drove a car into two groups of pedestrians in Jerusalem, killing three-month-old Chaya Zissel Braun and a young woman.
He then leapt out of the vehicle and attacked passers-by with an iron bar, until police shot him dead.
Hamas, which according to the US judgement is funded by Iran and uses Syria as a planning hub, hailed the attack at the time and described Shaludi as one of its "hero-martyrs".
Yesterday, Gibraltarian lawyers Isaac Massias and Ian Watts, from Gibraltar law firm Massias & Partners, filed a claim against Iran in the Supreme Court in Gibraltar, seeking just under £150m and asking the court to enforce the US order and seize the Iranian tanker.
"The monetary judgment [from the US court] concerns damages for personal injuries awarded to the Braun family together with a Mr Shimshon Halperin and Mrs Sara Halperin, in respect of the horrific injuries they suffered in the wake of a terrorist attack by the Islamic extremist group Hamas in Jerusalem in 2014," the lawyers told the Chronicle in an emailed statement.
"The American court specifically found that the terrorist attack and that group were aided and funded by Iran."
"We have issued these proceedings as a preliminary step in the process."
"It will come as no surprise that we will seeking to obtain a monetary judgment in Gibraltar with a view to enforcing it against Iranian assets within the jurisdiction, which we suspect to be the crude oil presently contained in M.V. Grace 1, and understood to be worth several hundreds of millions of dollars."
"We have been instructed in this matter which manifestly raises important issues of international law, and in pursuance of justice, we are honoured to be acting for innocent victims of terror and to be working alongside some of the leading experts in the field."
Shurat Hadin wages legal battles worldwide against what it calls "Israel's enemies". It represents hundreds of terror victims in legal actions against terrorist organisations and their supporters, and has won hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation on their behalf.
Its founder and president, Israeli lawyer Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, told the Chronicle that the supertanker represented a unique chance to compensate victims of terrorism.
"The victims of Iranian terrorism, who had love ones murdered and maimed, are hopeful that the British government will continue to [impound] the boat and allow them to execute their judgment against the cargo of oil," she said in a telephone interview.
"For decades the outlawed regime in Tehran had financed heinous terror attacks worldwide, and believed that they can continue to evade justice and ignore the court rulings against them."
"The Grace 1 in Gibraltar is a rare opportunity for the victims to seize Iranian assets and for European governments to show that they are unforgiving in the struggle against terrorism, and that they stand with the families not with those who devastated their life."
The development came as Iran's top leader said his country would retaliate over the seizure of the tanker in Gibraltar, ratcheting up tensions against the wider backdrop of a volatile stand-off with the United States over Iran's nuclear programme.
Tensions have spiked since US President Donald Trump last year abandoned a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran under which it agreed to curtail its enrichment of uranium in return for the lifting of global sanctions crippling its economy.
European parties to the pact decided on Monday not to trigger the deal's dispute mechanism in favour of pursuing more talks and avert any US-Iranian military conflict, but took no action to shield Iran against a sanctions clampdown by President Trump.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's ultimate authority, accused Britain, Germany and France of failing to uphold obligations under the deal to restore Iranian access to global trade, especially for Tehran's oil exports blocked by US sanctions.
In a televised speech on Tuesday, he also described the seizure of the Grace 1 as an act of "piracy".
"They [the European signatories of the Iran deal] make out of place demands," Ayatollah Khamenei said.
"Then evil Britain, and really their evilness is very clear, commits piracy and steals our ship. It is an act of piracy."
"But as usual they commit the crime and then try to give their crime a legal appearance and present a reason for what they have done. But it is a simple case: it is piracy."
"Of course the Islamic republic will not leave such evil deeds unanswered. There will be a response at the appropriate time and place."
"God willing, the Islamic Republic and its committed forces will not leave this evilness without a response."
The Gibraltar Government has repeatedly stated that the issue is not the origin of the oil but rather its destination.
It said the vessel, loaded with 2.1m barrels of light crude oil, was seized on suspicion that it was carrying the cargo to Syria in breach of European Union sanctions against that country.
"The provenance and origin of the cargo aboard the Grace 1 has not been relevant at all to Gibraltar's actions," Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said in a statement to Parliament last Friday.
"We have no desire, right or obligation to do anything other than enforce the existing sanctions against the Syrian regime, as we are bound and legally required to do by EU regulation 36/2012."
At the weekend, the UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt offered to help secure the release of the supertanker if Iran gave solid assurances that it was not bound for Syria.
Mr Hunt spoke to Mr Picardo and later phoned Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Saturday, seeking to reassure him the vessel was intercepted over suspicions it was carrying oil to Syria - and not because it was Iranian.
He said he had offered to facilitate the tanker's release - pending due process in Gibraltar’s courts - in return for guarantees from Tehran that it would not breach EU sanctions on the Assad regime.
On Tuesday, Downing Street said the UK's position had been "repeatedly stressed" to Tehran.
The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "We have been consistent: escalation in the Gulf is not in anyone's interests."
"We have repeatedly stressed that to the Iranians."
And in yet another twist to this complex row, questions were raised on Tuesday as to the vessel's physical condition.
The Israeli NGO Shurat HaDin claimed to have information suggesting the tanker was unfit to sail.
The organisation's local lawyers wrote to the Gibraltar Maritime Authority on Monday setting out their concerns about the ship and urging officials to detain the vessel pending a thorough investigation by maritime inspectors to check the tanker's seaworthiness.
In the letter, a copy of which has been seen by the Chronicle, the lawyers said the vessel was last inspected by port state control in China in September 2017, when a number of deficiencies were identified.
The Grace 1 had not returned to European waters until the night it was boarded off Gibraltar earlier this month and the lawyers highlighted that, under the Paris MoU ship inspection regime of which Gibraltar forms part, it should be checked by the GMA even if there are no grounds for concern about her condition.
The lawyers also pointed out that the vessel's insurance was terminated last January and that it did not appear to have the necessary classification as required by international maritime law, having been removed from its last class in June this year.
They urged the GMA to carry out a full port state control inspection.
The authorities in Gibraltar have not made any public comment about the seaworthiness of Grace 1, which also reportedly had its flag withdrawn by Panama earlier this year.
However Mr Picardo told Parliament last week that steps had been taken to minimise any environmental risk from the vessel's cargo.
"We are acutely conscious of the environmental issues that arise from the type of cargo that is held about Grace 1," he said at the time.
"There are obvious inherent risks in the maintenance of such a cargo, all of which are being skilfully mitigated by the Gibraltar Port Authority, both as to security and all other relevant concerns."
"I know this will of course be a concern to citizens both in Gibraltar and in neighbouring states."
"The Government will want to give reassurances that we are working to ensure that there will be no transboundary effects as a result of the maintenance of the cargo of the Grace 1 in Gibraltar."