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US Congress to allow 9/11 families to sue Saudi Arabia

Jim Watson / AFP | US President Barack Obama (L) speaks with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia at Erga Palace in Riyadh, on April 20, 2016.

The US House of Representatives passed legislation Friday that would allow victims of the 9/11 attacks and their relatives to sue Saudi Arabia’s government for damages, despite the White House’s threat to veto the measure.


The vote's timing was symbolic, passing two days before the 15th anniversary of the hijacked-plane attacks that killed thousands in New York, Washington and the Pennsylvania area.

The "Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act", or JASTA, was passed by voice vote after it was first approved unanimously by the Senate in May.

While its passage drew cheers and applause in the House chamber, opponents of the legislation said it could strain relations with Saudi Arabia, a key US ally, and lead to retaliatory action. The Obama administration warned that if US citizens can take the Saudis to court, then a foreign country in turn could sue the US.

There was no immediate comment from Saudi Arabia, which was preparing for the annual hajj pilgrimage starting Saturday.

However, protestations were made back in May with a threat issued from Riyadh to pull billions of dollars from the US economy if the legislation were to go ahead. But Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir denied in May that the kingdom made any threats over the bill. He said Riyadh had warned that investor confidence in the US would shrink if the bill became law.

"In fact what they (Congress) are doing is stripping the principle of sovereign immunities, which would turn the world for international law into the law of the jungle," Al-Jubeir said.

The new law gives victims’ families the right to sue in a US court for any role that elements of the Saudi government may have played in the 2001 attacks.

The House vote comes just two months after Congress released 28 declassified pages from a congressional report into 9/11 that reignited speculation over links at least a few of the attackers had to Saudis, including government officials. The allegations were never substantiated by later US investigations into the terrorist attacks.

Brian McGlinchey, director of advocacy website, said making the documents public "strengthened the resolve of 9/11 families and other advocates of justice to bring about the enactment" of the bill.

White House officials reiterated on Friday that President Barack Obama would go so far as to veto the legislation.

If Obama carries out his veto threat and the required two-thirds of both the Republican-majority House and Senate still support the bill, it would be the first time since Obama's presidency began in 2009 that Congress had overridden a veto.

McGlinchey said that a decision by Obama to veto legislation "that would give 9/11 families their well-deserved day in court would truly stain his legacy".


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