The US senate has passed legislation that would allow the victims of the September 11 attacks to file lawsuits seeking damages from officials from Saudi Arabia - a move that sets the bill for a showdown with the White House.
Fifteen of the nineteen men who hijacked four planes and flew them into targets in New York and Washington in 2001 were Saudi citizens, though Riyadh has always denied having any role in the attacks.
A US commission established in the aftermath of the attacks also concluded there was no evidence of official Saudi connivance. However, the White House has been under pressure to declassify a 28-page section of the report that was never published on the grounds of national security.
The families have been trying to use the courts to hold responsible members of the Saudi royal family, Saudi banks and charities. Yet these efforts have been largely blocked because of a 1976 law that gives foreign nations some immunity from lawsuits in American courts.
The bill passed by the Senate would circumvent that earlier legislation. It now needs to go the House.
The Saudis are furious over the bill and have threatened to sell up to $750bn in US securities and other American assets in retaliation if it becomes law. President Barack Obama has said he would veto the bill.
Yet there appears to be significant public support for the legislation. If the bill becomes law, it would remove the sovereign immunity, preventing lawsuits against governments, for countries found to be involved in terrorist attacks on US soil. It would allow survivors of the attacks, and relatives of those killed in the attacks, to seek damages from other countries.
Last week, the Guardian reported that a former member of the commission that investigated the attacks believed there was evidence that some Saudi officials had supported the hijackers.
John Lehman, who sat on the 9/11 Commission from 2003 to 2004, said there was an “awful lot of circumstantial evidence” implicating several employees in the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs.
“There was an awful lot of participation by Saudi individuals in supporting the hijackers, and some of those people worked in the Saudi government,” he said.
Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York, a co-sponsor, said the bill was overdue and that, because it only applies to attacks on US soil, did not risk lawsuits against the United States.
“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,” Mr Schumer told a news conference, according to Reuters.
Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, also a sponsor of the bill, said JASTA did not target the Saudis, although he alluded to a still-classified section of a report on the September 11 attacks that Saudi critics say might implicate Riyadh.
“We have yet to see the 28 pages that have not been yet released about the 9/11 report, and that may well be instructive,” Mr Cornyn said.
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