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Saudi Arabia must face lawsuits over 9/11: US Judge

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A US judge has ruled that the government of Saudi Arabia has to face lawsuits by American citizens over the September 11th attacks in 2001, reuters reported on Thursday.

U.S District Judge George Daniels in Manhattan gave the ruling, saying that the allegations by the plaintiff provide a “reasonable basis” for asserting jurisdiction over Saudi Arabia. Over 800 people who say they were hurt in the 9/11 attacks filed a lawsuit against Saudi Arabia over a year ago. The plaintiff includes those that were injured in the attack and people whose family members were killed during the attack.

How can the judge of a district court in the US extend his jurisdiction to the government of Saudi Arabia? Is it even possible for a government foreign to the United States, such as that of Saudi Arabia, to be held ‘accountable’ like this by a court in the criminal justice of the US? One has to go back to the final years of Obama’s presidency in order to understand the broader legal context.

The Gulf Kingdom has vigorously denied any involvement in the attack. The Kingdom told the US district judge to throw out the lawsuit, adding that there is no evidence the government of Saudi Arabia, in any way, aided the perpetrators of 9/11 attacks.

The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act or JASTA was enacted by the US Congress on September 28th, 2016. The Act was intended ‘to deter terrorism, provide justice for victims and for other purposes’. Section 3(a) of this focuses on ‘Responsibility of foreign states for international terrorism against the United States.’ And under section 5(a), the Act notes that ‘the courts of the United States shall have exclusive jurisdiction in any action in which a foreign state is subject to the jurisdiction of a court of the United States’.

Read more: Saudi Arabia raises temperature against Iran

This Act amended other laws passed by Congress before that guaranteed foreign sovereign immunity albeit with a few exceptions, such as the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act 1976. What JASTA did was allow families of the victims of the September 2001 attacks to sue the government of Saudia Arabia for allegedly providing support to the 9/11 hijackers. Barrack Obama had originally vetoed the bill, his first and only use of the Presidential veto. Congress, however, overrode his veto with an overwhelming 97-1 vote in the senate.

Democratic minority leader Harry Reid of Nevada alone supported the veto. In an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN, Obama said that the override of the veto is a mistake. He said that it would allow reciprocal lawsuits against US entities such as government officials and private citizens serving in foreign nations. The Act has been criticized in legal circles as well. According to the Boston College Law Preview, JASTA is an infringement on executive power. “Empowered by Congress, private citizens and the courts can disrupt the President’s unified foreign policy with respect to the suspect nation, an impermissible violation of the separation of powers doctrine,” it said.

The High Courts in India, for instance, can’t hold Shahbaz Sharif responsible for his actions. Rarely though, actions of a government of one country may be subject to jurisdiction of courts in another. JASTA allows this.

The very next day the bill was passed, Saudi Arabia condemned its enactment. “The erosion of sovereign immunity will have a negative impact on all nations, including the United States,” the Saudi foreign ministry said in the statement. Usually, governments are immune to litigation from courts in other countries. The High Courts in India, for instance, can’t hold Shahbaz Sharif responsible for his actions. Rarely though, actions of a government of one country may be subject to jurisdiction of courts in another. JASTA allows this.

Coming back to the lawsuit against Saudi Arabia, the plaintiffs are seeking monetary compensation from Saudi Arabia after accusing the Gulf Kingdom for supporting Al-Qaeda. “Saudi Arabia was duplicitous”, the suit said. “As a result, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is liable to plaintiffs for all damages resulting in the injuries and deaths in September 11th Attacks,” it further adds.

Read more: Saudi Arabia Blockades Millions After Houthis Launch Missiles

However, it is inconceivable that the courts in the US can force the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to pay up. Within any country, the state has a monopoly on violence to ensure the enforcement of law. If someone disobeys a court order, the police will force him to do otherwise. There is no such law enforcing body at the international level. This litigation will probably go nowhere.

Whether or not there is any evidence that Saudi Arabia aided in the 9/11 terrorist attack is another story entirely. The Gulf Kingdom has vigorously denied any involvement in the attack. The Kingdom told the US district judge to throw out the lawsuit, adding that there is no evidence the government of Saudi Arabia, in any way, aided the perpetrators of 9/11 attacks. Michael Kellogg, a lawyer for the Kingdom, also said that reports from the 9/11 Commission, FBI, CIA and 9/11 Review Commission found no proof Saudi Arabia backed the attacks.


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