D.C. Circuit Lightens Sudan’s Load on Terrorism Judgments

(CN) — The D.C. Circuit on Friday shaved off more than $4.3 billion in punitive damages tacked onto a $10.2 billion judgment against Sudan for harboring terrorists responsible for the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings.

The East African nation did not appear for U.S. court proceedings blaming it for simultaneous truck bombings in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, that killed more than 200 people on Aug. 7, 1998.

Targeting U.S. embassies, the twin al-Qaida strikes are often seen as a precursor to the 9/11 attacks.

Seven people – led by James Owens – sued Sudan and Iran in Washington, D.C. federal court in 2001, accusing the countries of harboring the al-Qaida operatives who committed the attacks.

After the countries did not appear in court, U.S. District Judge John Bates entered a $10.2 billion judgment against them, including more than $4.3 billion in punitive damages under both state and federal law.

At the time, Bates described his ruling as a “wake-up call” to Sudan, “which after years of sitting on the sidelines” he said would be held accountable for helping al-Qaida.

On appeal, Sudan contested any role in the attacks, noting that it ejected Osama bin Laden from the country two years before the attacks, after the United States designed him an international terrorist.

On Friday, the D.C. Circuit refused such a do-over, but it also ruled that the “extraordinary circumstances” surrounding the case warranted a three-judge panel’s intervention.

“Given the size of the awards, the strength of Sudan’s contentions, and the likelihood of this question recurring, we believe reviewing the award of punitive damages both promotes ‘the interests of justice’ and ‘advance[s] efficient judicial administration,’” U.S. Circuit Judge Douglas Ginsburg wrote for the panel in a 129-page opinion.

On appeal, Sudan advanced several arguments for its district court no-show. The county had to grapple with natural disasters and civil wars, and argued it did not understand the U.S. legal process enough to appreciate the consequences of its absence.

While the three-judge panel rejected these excuses, it agreed that there was no clear basis for the retroactive application of the military appropriations bill justifying the punitive damages — the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act.

“Therefore, we vacate the award of punitive damages to plaintiffs proceeding under the federal cause of action,” the opinion states.

U.S. Circuit Judges Karen LeCraft Henderson and Judith Rogers joined Ginsburg on the panel.

The punitive damages under state law turn on a different question: whether the plaintiffs needed to be present at the bombing sites to recover their award.

The District of Columbia Court of Appeals will have to decide that question.

Sudan’s lawyer Christopher Curran, a partner in the D.C.-based office of White & Case, declined to comment on the ruling.

The attorney for the victims did not immediately respond Friday to email and telephone requests for comment.

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