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9/11 families urge Congress to back off Sudan deal

9/11 families urge Congress to back off Sudan deal
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The victims and families of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks are urging Congress not to move forward with removing Sudan from the list of State Sponsor’s of Terrorism in a deal they say would rob them of holding Khartoum accountable in a court of law.

Approximately 3,000 families of 9/11 victims are party to lawsuits against Sudan for its role helping Al Qaeda carry out the deadliest attack on American soil.

But Congress is poised to provide a legal shield to Sudan as part of a pending deal being negotiated by the State Department that would likely see Khartoum provide compensation for victims of the 1998 bombings at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania with the stipulation that Congress quickly pass legislation giving Sudan immunity from all other terrorist-related claims.

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Supporters say delisting Sudan from the State Sponsor of Terrorism list, a pariah status held by countries like North Korea, Iran and Syria, is necessary to help Khartoum’s transitional government — which took control after a grassroots revolution overthrew the three-decade dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir — stay afloat amid an economic crisis worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But victims and families of victims of the 9/11 attacks are urging Congress and the State Department to consider their claims against Sudan in any deal.

In a letter to lawmakers, advocates for 9/11 victims and their families said that while they empathize with the Sudanese, their rights as U.S. citizens should not be taken away.

“So, while we certainly care about the plight of the Sudanese people and we hope their fledgling nation fares well, our loved ones were brutally murdered on September 11th, and we would like to hold Sudan accountable for its role in their cold-blooded murder by terrorism.”

The letter was signed by September 11 Advocates, an organization that says it is dedicated to transparency, justice, and accountability for the 9/11 families.

The group has sent hundreds of letters in recent weeks as part of a campaign to make lawmakers aware of their concerns about the negotiations with Sudan.

“Sudan is a longtime state sponsor of terrorism that we believe, and the courts and intelligence sources agree, was complicit in the 9/11 attacks that murdered 3,000 innocent American civilians — including mothers, fathers, husbands, and wives,” September 11 Advocates told The Hill.

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“We have been fighting for justice and accountability for nearly two decades. No deal with Sudan that includes the delisting of Sudan and the restoration of its sovereign immunity, should extinguish our legitimate claims and defaults against Sudan for its role in the 9/11 attacks,” the group added.

Of the multiple lawsuits against Sudan, 9/11 victims and their families allege that Khartoum provided financial resources, material support and abetted international terrorism and certain members of Al Qaeda who participated in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Sudan has not responded to the lawsuits, and the 9/11 victims worry that efforts by Congress to provide immunity will deny them justice.

“For 15 years, Sudan has simply ignored the 9/11 families' lawsuit seeking damages for Sudan’s role in helping Al Qaeda,” said James Kreindler, a partner with Kreindler & Kreindler LLP who is representing victims unaffiliated with September 11th Advocates.

He said his clients oppose any deal that would block their efforts to hold Khartoum accountable.

A State Department official said the agency fully supports the ability of victims of terrorism to pursue compensation.

The official said the agency is working to make sure 9/11 victims with pending claims are able to pursue those claims against Sudan even if Congress rescinds the State Sponsor of Terrorism designation.

“Ensuring that 9/11 victims have the opportunity to pursue claims against Sudan and the rescission of Sudan’s State Sponsor of Terrorism designation are not mutually exclusive,” the official said.

One possible solution floated by the State Department involves allowing 9/11 victims to pursue their claims under the 2016 Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).

Yet lawyers for the 9/11 plaintiffs say this is just a gambit to wipe out the claims completely, because the suits were filed under the state sponsor statute, not JASTA, and Sudan is already arguing in court that JASTA claims can’t be brought against it.

The State Department’s efforts are further being criticized by victims of the 1998 embassy bombings who are against the agency’s proposed plan to settle their claims, which would give a higher payout for American victims killed or wounded compared to U.S.-employed foreign-nationals.

In a letter to Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoArmenia and Azerbaijan say they will implement ceasefire agreement Monday Entire Nigerian police force mobilized after days of violent protests that have killed at least 69 Hillicon Valley: Treasury sanctions Russian group accused of targeting critical facilities | Appeals court rules Uber, Lyft must comply with labor laws | Biden: Countries that target US elections will 'pay a price' MORE in March, 520 victims and families of victims of the embassy bombings wrote, “The U.S. government should not give Sudan a discount for killing or injuring a U.S. Government employee who was a foreign national.”

The New York Times reported last month that the State Department’s plan would have Sudan pay $10 million to families of Americans who have died and $3 million to U.S. victims who were wounded.

Families of foreign nationals killed or injured while working at the embassies would be entitled to significantly less, $800,000 if a family member was killed and $400,000 if the foreign-national survived but was wounded.

Rep. Bennie Johnson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, criticized the payouts in an April letter to top Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs and Judiciary committees, saying State’s plan creates “a two-tiered system that blatantly disrespect the service of the Kenyans and Tanzanians who were working in our embassies.”

“In order to finalize a settlement, the State Department will need to come to Congress to get a grant of immunity from further liability for Sudan. We should stand united against providing any such immunity unless an equitable settlement for all the victims is reached,” he wrote.

A State Department official said the agreements being worked out “would secure significant compensation for both U.S. national and non-U.S. national victims of those attacks” and called Sudan’s commitment to provide compensation for non-U.S. nationals “of an unprecedented nature.” 

The official added that “as a matter of international law,” the U.S. cannot eliminate Sudanese liability for claims of non-U.S. nationals like it can for American citizens, and that their inclusion for compensation demonstrates “a good-faith effort on the part of Sudan to address their losses.”

Mike Miller, co-lead attorney for more than 600 victims of the 1998 embassy bombings disagreed.

“International law does not prohibit the State Department from treating all of its employees equally. In any event, U.S. law controls the rights of these U.S. government employees.”

In May, the Supreme Court ruled that Sudan was required to pay damages to the embassy bombing victims and made no distinction between foreign-national U.S. employees and American citizens.

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The State Department and Congress have signaled that the window is closing for an opportunity to reach a deal with Sudan.

The U.S. is keen to support Sudan’s transitional government as it faces renewed protests marking one year since their revolution, with demonstrators criticizing the government of Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok of not moving faster on reforms in the country.

“This is a critical moment for the transition in Sudan as it is buffeted by a failing economy, while at the same time attempting to assert the authority of civilian rule over the military, and dismantle 30 years of corrupt, authoritarian rule,” said Cameron Hudson, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Africa Center.

“The U.S. is uniquely positioned, by removing its terrorism designation, to eliminate a major obstacle to outside investment and financing in the country, while at the same time delivering a huge political win to Sudan’s struggling democrats. Such a move by the U.S. would both acknowledge the significant positive changes that have occurred in the past year under civilian rule and the many hardships suffered by Sudan’s courageous protesters to get to this point.”

Sudan is eager to shore up deals with the Trump administration ahead of the November election and is also likely poised to be the next major Muslim country to open relations with Israel, following a historic breakthrough in relations with the United Arab Emirates. That would give the Trump administration another foreign policy accomplishment heading into the fall.

Pompeo, speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month, said “This is an opportunity that doesn’t come along often.”

“Perhaps regional opportunities will flow from that. I think lifting the [State Sponsor of Terrorism] designation, if we can take care of victims of those tragedies, would be a good thing for American foreign policy.”

Pompeo signaled the State Department, working with Congress, is looking to settle a deal with Sudan “in the very near term.”

Updated at 11:33 a.m.