US congress passes terrorism lawsuits bill

President Obama has threatened to veto the bill, which would allow families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia.
Members of Congress bow their heads during a 9/11 remembrance outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC on September 11, 2013. Mandel Ngan / AFP
Members of Congress bow their heads during a 9/11 remembrance outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC on September 11, 2013. Mandel Ngan / AFP

Abu Dhabi // The lower chamber of the US congress unanimously passed a bill on Friday that will allow families of September 11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia in US courts, setting up a showdown with Barack Obama who has promised to veto the legislation.

The senate passed the bill unanimously in May, and the US president warned at the time that undermining the principle of sovereign immunity would open the door for damaging and costly lawsuits against the United States in foreign courts over issues such as drone strikes. Americans travelling abroad, diplomats and service members could all face unpredictable risks

The law would allow long-standing lawsuits brought against Riyadh by victims’ families to proceed, and would in effect end sovereign immunity held by foreign countries in US courts under current law. The families of terrorism victims are only allowed to sue countries officially designated as sponsors of terrorism.

The White House and senior members of both parties also argue that the law will further damage an already tense relationship with a key Gulf ally and counter-terrorism partner.

The New York Times reported earlier this year that Saudi officials have said they would liquidate billions in assets in the US to shield themselves if the bill was passed.

The previously classified 28 pages of a 2002 congressional inquiry into the 9/11 attacks that focused on potential links between low-level Saudi officials and some of the 15 attackers who were Saudi, were partly released by the White House in July.

Those documents did not present any significant new evidence of a Saudi government role, but failed to quell suspicions held by victims’ families and some members of congress. US legislators have come under pressure to pass the bill ahead of the 15th anniversary of the attacks on Sunday and in a contentious election cycle.

The Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has said she supports the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, as the bill is officially known.

“This is a great day for America,” a Republican representative from New York, Peter King, told a cheering audience of family members and visitors just before the vote. “It is essential that 9/11 families have the right to bring action in American courts.”

The unanimous vote in both chambers of congress raises the likelihood that they will override Mr Obama’s likely veto, the first time during his tenure that a bitterly divided legislative branch will have mustered a two-thirds super majority to block a veto.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Published: September 9, 2016 04:00 AM

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