The governments of Sudan and Iran will be liable for potentially billions of dollars in damages to victims of suicide bombings at U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in 1998, a Washington federal judge ruled (PDF) yesterday.
The majority of the victims in the cases were foreign nationals working for the embassies at the time. According to the order (PDF) from U.S. District Judge John Bates, a special master will be appointed to figure how much in damages the plaintiffs - the victims and their families - would be entitled to and how to handle each claim, although neither Iran nor Sudan have participated in the proceedings for several years.
The opinion represents another test of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008, which amended the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act to allow foreign nationals working for the U.S. government to sue a state sponsor of terrorism for any injuries or death suffered on the job. Bates found that the amendment didn’t apply to the plaintiffs in this case, because the act didn’t specifically include a federal cause of action for the family members of non-U.S. citizens.
Regardless of whether Congress intended non-U.S. citizen family members to sue, Bates wrote, “it is not the court's role to fix a problem that Congress failed to address.” However, he found that the amendment did allow the plaintiffs to proceed in U.S. federal courts under local laws, in this case, in the District of Columbia.
Bates issued a similar ruling in August in cases involving foreign nationals who were victims of terrorist attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon in the 1980s. In that case, which offered the first test of whether family members of non-U.S. citizens could have a federal cause of action, Bates came to the same conclusion that they could proceed under local laws. Those plaintiffs are seeking $12 billion from the Iranian government.
In the 1998 bombings, Bates heard evidence during a three-day hearing last October. The Sudanese government participated in proceedings early on, but stopped in early 2009; the Iranian government has never participated.
Bates found that the Iranian and Sudanese governments provided material aid and support to al-Qaida and Osama Bin Laden, who carried out the attacks. Although the opinion covers six separate cases, they were consolidated for the purposes of the hearing and figuring out damages.
Bates’ order didn’t specify how much in damages the plaintiffs as a whole were seeking, but based on the original complaints, the amount would be in the billions of dollars.
Thomas Fay of Washington’s Fay Kaplan Law, a lead counsel for several sets of plaintiffs, said he thought the case represented one of the first, if not the first, instance where Tanzanian citizens working for a U.S. embassy would receive damages following a terrorist attack.
“I think it demonstrates to people [in Africa] that when we talk about the rule of law, we’re serious about it. Not just the rule of law for Americans, but the rule of law for everybody,” Fay said.
The government of the Republic of South Sudan, which was declared a new sovereign state in July, would not be considered liable for the Republic of Sudan’s liability, according to Fay.
Attorneys for the other groups of plaintiffs could not immediately be reached.