US Senate approves controversial JASTA bill; White House’s seal of approval still awaited

The US Senate passed a bill on Tuesday, that would allow survivors and relatives of those killed in the 9/11 attacks to seek legal damages against the government of Saudi Arabia for its alleged complicity in the terror plot.

JASTA bill
The passed bill empowers 9/11 families to sue Saudi government. Photo: infamous 9/11 attack

The controversial bill, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), was the result of the efforts of 16 senators and will now go to the White House for approval.

If it became law, JASTA would remove the sovereign immunity preventing lawsuits against governments, for countries found to be involved in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. It would allow survivors of the attacks, and relatives of those killed in the attacks, to seek damages from other countries.

However, it is highly unlikely that President Obama will sign the legislation because it could end up putting the US at risk of similar prosecutions.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, a Democrat and a sponsor of the bill, said the legislation would help the families of the victims seek justice.

“For the sake of the families, I want to make clear beyond the shadow of a doubt that every entity, including foreign states, will be held accountable if they are found to be sponsors of the heinous act of 9/11,” he said shortly before the bill’s passage.

Senator Chuck Schumer
Senator Chuck Schumer

“If the Saudis did not participate in this terrorism, they have nothing to fear about going to court,” he said. “If they did, they should be held accountable.”

“Today the Senate has spoken loudly and unanimously that the families of victims of terrorist attacks should be able to hold the perpetrators, even if it’s a country, a nation, accountable,” Schumer said at a press conference on Tuesday after the bill was passed.

It must be remembered that the White House has stalled the bill three times since 2011.

In a way the administration is trying to protect US-Saudi relationship which is already strained and would probably get worse if the bill were to pass. The administration also believes it needs Saudi cooperation, in fighting ISIS, for example.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir had warned US lawmakers early this year, that his country might begin to withdraw its USD 750 billion worth of investments in America if the 9/11 legislation were to pass.

Meanwhile, intelligence officials are debating whether to make public, classified information that implicate Saudi officials and civilians in the attacks. The attacks killed around 3000 people and injured more than 6000 others. 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens. It is also alleged that Al-Qaeda was financed by charities linked to the Saudi government.

A group of victims’ families, called 9/11 Families and Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism have been trying for years to sue the government of Saudi Arabia. They allege that the country helped to finance al-Qaeda and thus should be made to pay financial damages. However, these law suits are still dragging on in court because of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FISA), a 1976 US law, that gives foreign governments protection from such cases in US courts.

The new Senate bill would amend the 1990 Anti-Terrorism Act “so that civil suits against foreign sponsors of terrorism can be held accountable in US courts where their conducts contribute to an attack that kills an American.”

Critics of JASTA say that passing the bill would weaken the international norm of sovereign immunity. Duke law professor Curtis Bradley and Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith, warned, “If the United States reduces the immunity it accords to other nations, it exposes itself to an equivalent reduction in its own immunity abroad.”

“We have to consider the significant unintended consequences of moving forward with legislation like this,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said during a press briefing on Tuesday. “It could put the U.S. at risk around the world… it is a dangerous proposition.”

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir has said his country’s objection to the bill is based on principles of international relations. “What (Congress is) doing is stripping the principle of sovereign immunities which would turn the world for international law into the law of the jungle,” he said in a statement on Tuesday.

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