US Supreme Court could demand billions in damages from debt-ridden Sudan over Al-Qaeda embassy bombings

US Supreme Court could demand billions in damages from debt-ridden Sudan over Al-Qaeda embassy bombings
Paying compensation to the victims of two Al-Qaeda attacks is seen as a key step to Sudan's removal from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism list.
3 min read
25 February, 2020
More than 200 people were killed in the Kenya and Tanzania embassy attacks [Getty]
The US Supreme Court on Monday appeared open to reinstating more than $4 billion in punitive damages against Sudan over the 1998 Al-Qaeda bombings that targeted US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, killing 224 people.

Eight justices heard arguments in an appeal of a 2017 lower court ruling that blocked the victims and their families from receiving $4.3 billion in punitive damages, Reuters reported.

The case has sweeping implications for Sudan's relationship with the United States.

Ties between Khartoum and Washington have warmed since a transitional government took the place of former dictator Omar Al-Bashir last year.

Sudan remains on the US state sponsors of terrorism list, a designation that dates back to the 1990s, when Bashir's regime hosted former Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

This is seen as hampering Khartoum's international standing and its removal is dependent upon its decision to admit its alleged complicity in 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, compensating the victims.

Compensation to the victims of embassy attacks in Africa in 1998 and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole are the last obstacle to Sudan's removal from the list, which submits the country to damaging US sanctions, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok said late last year. 

Khartoum reached a settlement last month with the families of the 17 victims of the USS Cole attack, also directed by Al-Qaeda.

It is not clear exactly how much the Sudanese transitional government agreed to pay in compensation, but sources close to the deal told Reuters the pay-out was around $30 million.

That figure pales in comparison to the $6 billion or so in compensatory damages Khartoum is currently expected to pay out to the victims of the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassy attacks.

If the Supreme Court rules with the plaintiffs in reinstating punitive damages against Sudan, the heavily indebted transitional government could be expected to pay out in excess of $10 billion.

Rescue workers survey the rubble at the site of the former US embassy in Nairobi, Kenya [Getty]

Eight Supreme Court justices on Monday directed the bulk of their questioning against an attorney representing Sudan, rather than the plaintiffs.

They raised doubts over claims that Sudan's transitional government could not be hit with punitive damages.

The Trump administration has urged the Supreme Court to side with the plaintiffs and reinstate punitive damages.

Khartoum denies allegations that it harboured and provided support to Al-Qaeda which ultimately led to the bombings.

The devestating truck bombs that were detonated simultaneously outside the two US embassies on 7 August 1998 marked the first large-scale attack by the extremist group.

In Nairobi, 213 people were killed, with another 11 lives claimed in Dar es Salaam. Twelves US citizens were among the dead, with thousands more injured.

Al-Qaeda would go on to carry out the September 11 attacks in the US just three years later, killing nearly 3,000 people.

Groups of plaintiffs representing the victims and their families began to sue Sudan in US courts in 2001.

While US law generally bars claims against foreign countries, a federal judge was able to find Sudan liable for $10.2 billion in damages due to its place on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list.

A US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld Sudan's liability but ruled that a 2008 change in the law allowing for punitive damages could not be applied retroactively. 

On Monday, some justices of the Supreme Court appeared skeptical of that ruling.

Critics of the case in Sudan and elsewhere have cast doubt on Khartoum's complicity in the bombings which occurred two years after bin Laden was expelled from the country.

Previous statements by Sudanese officials indicate that the transitional government - some $60 billion in debt and still mired in economic crisis stoked under Bashir - may hope to negotiate the settlement down to a smaller and more manageable sum.

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