High Court Reverses in Sudan Asset Attachment Case

Experts in a speed boat examine the damaged hull of the USS Cole on Oct. 15, 2000, after an al-Qaida attack that killed 17 sailors in the Yemeni port of Aden. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court threw out a nearly $315 million judgment against Sudan stemming from the USS Cole bombing, saying Sudan hadn’t properly been notified of the lawsuit. (AP Photo/Dimitri Messinis, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) – A $314 million terror judgment against Sudan fell apart as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 Tuesday that the country’s prime minister, rather than its embassy, should have been served with the lawsuit.

Sudan raised the service-of-process challenge after failing to make an appearance in the case over the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole at the port of Aden, Yemen, which killed 17 U.S. Navy sailors and injured 42. 

Though the attack was carried out by al-Qaida, the 15 victims and their spouses alleged that Sudan’s bank accounts at the National Bank of Egypt and Credit Agricole Corporate and Investment Bank were linked to weapons that had been used in the attack.

After a federal judge handed the victims default judgment, the Second Circuit denied Sudan’s appeal, which hinged on the service-of-process requirements laid out in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and Optional Protocol Disputes.

Though the Second Circuit called it reasonable to expect that Sudan’s embassy would deliver a service packet to its foreign minister, Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority Tuesday that the service packet should have effected directly with the prime minister’s office in Sudan.

“The most natural reading of this language is that service must be mailed directly to the foreign minister’s office in the foreign state,” Alito wrote. “Although this is not, we grant, the only plausible reading of the statutory text, it is the most natural one.”

The bombing victims called it unfair to throw out their judgment based on such a highly technical argument, but majority found the argument unavailing. 

“We understand respondents’ exasperation and recognize that enforcing compliance … may seem like an empty formality in this particular case,” Alito wrote. “But there are circumstances in which the rule of law demands adherence to strict requirements even when the equities of a particular case may seem to point in the opposite direction.”

Justice Clarence Thomas took the side of the bombing victims.

“Given the unique role that embassies play in facilitating communications between states, a foreign state’s embassy in Washington, D. C., is, absent an indication to the contrary, a place where a U. S. litigant can serve the state’s foreign minister,” the dissent by Thomas states.

Thomas also noted that there is no evidence that Sudan’s embassy declined the service packet addressed to its foreign minister, “as it was free to do.” 

Sudan was represented before the high court by the Washington firm White & Case. The survivors, led by Rick Harrison, were represented by the firms Hall Lamb and Hall & Leto, of Miami, and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in Washington.

“We are disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision in our case seeking to hold Sudan accountable for the USS Cole bombing,” Paul Weiss attorney Kannon Shanmugam said in a statement. “The fight for justice for the Cole victims and their families continues.”

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