Sunday, August 31, 2008

Court Rejects 9/11 Lawsuit against Saudis

A federal court has dismissed a lawsuit by the powerhouse Philadelphia Cozen O'Connor law firm that sought money damages from Saudi Arabia's government and several senior Saudi officials for their alleged involvement in 9/11. Brought primarily on behalf of insurers who have paid out billions in ground zero claims, the lawsuit alleged that the Saudi government and the named officials provided financial and logistical support to Al Qaeda in the run-up to the attacks.

The Manhattan-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the defendants were "immune" from the lawsuit under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which generally prevents foreign governments and their officials from being sued in U.S. courts. The FSIA law provides an exception from the immunity provisions for state-sponsored terrorist acts, however. Despite the belief among many intelligence observers that the Saudis are heavily involved in terrorism funding, the U.S. State Department (for geopolitical or other reasons) has never designated Saudi Arabia as a state-sponsor of international terrorism. As a result, the court ruled that it lacked "subject matter jurisdiction" over the case.

According to the court, "Although the FSIA did open an an avenue of redress for certain individual victims of state-sponsored terrorism, it did not delegate to the victims, their counsel and the courts the responsibility of the executive branch to make America's foreign policy response to acts of terrorism committed by a foreign state, including whether federal courts may entertain a victim's claim for damages." The case is In Re Terrorist Attacks on September 11, 2001, Docket No. 06-0319-cv(L), 8/14/08.

The three-judge panel made no factual findings per se in the case; its opinion was based merely on what amounts to a "mechanical" application of a federal statute. Although the mainstream media often fails to explain this to the public, courts often duck or postpone the big issues presented by a case by ruling on more narrow, procedural grounds.

For now, the defendants are off the hook. But the plaintiffs are considering appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, or perhaps a request for a rehearing in front of the full Second Circuit bench. In the meantime, claims against other defendants, such as the Saudi-owned National Commercial Bank, are apparently still active; shortly after the appeals court ruling, Cozen O'Connor filed for additional "discovery" (i.e., requests for documents and other information) from the bank.

A summary of the lawsuit's extensive procedural history can be found here.

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