TORONTO — Sixteen years have passed since Sherri Wise was nearly killed in a horrific terrorist attack in Jerusalem, and thanks to the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act that passed last year, Wise can finally seek damages from the Iranian government.
A claim filed in the British Columbia Supreme Court late last month by the 43-year-old Vancouver-based dentist is the first such case to be launched in Canada against Iran, a listed state sponsor of terrorism.
The lawsuit accuses the Islamic Republic of supplying Hamas with weapons, training and funds to facilitate terror attacks, including the 1997 attack in which Wise was severely injured.
“I was volunteering as a dentist for three weeks, working on underprivileged children in a program called Dental Volunteers for Israel,” Wise said in an interview with The CJN.
In the six months before she arrived in Israel in August 1997, Israel had suffered three terrorist attacks: the Island of Peace massacre in March 1997 in which seven 11-year-old girls were killed; a suicide bombing in a Tel Aviv coffee shop that killed three and injured 49, and the Machane Yehuda bombing that killed 16 Israelis and wounded 178.
She said before she left for Israel, she thought, “‘What are the odds of this happening? If it happens, do you think it’s going to happen to you? No.’”
On the last day of her volunteer stint, she decided to go for lunch with a couple of friends at an outdoor café on Ben Yehuda Street, a trendy pedestrian mall.
“It was a gorgeous day, really hot out, and at one point, I saw this really strange-looking person walking down the street. It was a man dressed in women’s clothing… he was in a skirt, in drag,” she said, adding that she simply shrugged it off.
She then asked her friend to switch seats with her because she wanted to get out of the sun.
“Before I could even sit back down in her chair, the first two bombs went off. I was knocked to the floor and when I turned around to see what was happening, the other bomber was directly in front of me and he pulled the detonator.”
Three Hamas suicide bombers were responsible for murdering five Israelis, including three 14-year-old girls, and wounding 190 more.
“I had burns on 40 per cent of my body. I lost a lot of hearing, my hair was burned off and I had a bolt through my foot. I was stuck to the table, because all the nails [from the bomb] that went through the table went into my leg, so I was impaled on the table,” she recalled.
She spent two weeks in an Israeli hospital, then flew to Winnipeg to stay with her parents for three months before returning to Vancouver.
She spent six months being treated at burn clinics, and because of swelling and sensitivity in her arms and hands, she wasn’t able to return to work for nearly a year.
Her insurance policy, which “was void in the event of terrorism or war,” would not cover her medical expenses. Neither would British Columbia’s health insurance, which doesn’t cover injuries sustained out of province.
Despite having to pay out of pocket for her recovery and her loss of income that resulted from being unable to work, she didn’t consider pursuing legal action until she became involved with the Canadian Coalition Against Terror (C-CAT) in 2004.
C-CAT is the organization that led the campaign for the passage of the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act (JVTA), which was enacted in March 2012, allowing Canadians to seek damages against Iran and Syria, which were designated as state sponsors of terror.
Although her claim doesn’t seek a specific amount in damages from Iran, Wise and her lawyers are hoping for a share of Iran’s millions of dollars in assets in Canada.
Last month, the Department of Foreign Affairs released a list of Iranian-owned properties in Ottawa, as well as 14 Canadian bank accounts holding at least $2.6 million in total.
Complicating things are three American cases against Iran that have been filed in Ontario. The Americans were awarded more than $300 million by U.S. courts, but because Iran didn’t have assets in the United States, they asked the Ontario court to award them Iran’s Canadian assets.
In a sworn statement presented at a Sept. 30 Ontario Superior Court of Justice hearing, Wise argued that she would be “severely prejudiced if I am not permitted to intervene and if the plaintiffs’ motion is not adjourned so my lawyers have time to prepare submissions.”
She added that, “it is unlikely that the defendants [Iran] will have any assets remaining if the plaintiffs are granted default judgment.”
Wise’s lawyer, Mark Freiman, explained to The CJN that the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act “allows Canadian victims of terrorism to sue for acts of terrorism committed since 1985… There is another provision that says people who hold judgments from another country against a listed state sponsor of terrorism, with respect to acts of terrorism, can enforce those judgments in Canada,” he said.
Freiman said that during the hearing, he “asked the judge to allow us to take part in the proceedings, because we believe there is an important issue that has to be decided about the act itself… The question is whether it also allows for foreign judgments stretching back that far to be enforced in Canada. We don’t think that is the intention or the effect of the law.”
The judge ultimately ruled that Wise didn’t have a legal interest in that proceeding.
But Wise and her lawyers aren’t giving up.
“We’re in it for the long run and we will see it through and we will take every legal avenue to pursue it,” Wise said.