Judge John Bates of U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Judge John Bates of U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ NLJ)

A federal judge in Washington awarded more than $955 million to the victims and family members of victims of the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

The judgments, issued on March 28, represent the latest in a series of high-dollar awards entered in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against foreign governments accused of backing terrorist attacks—in this case, Iran and the Republic of Sudan. (The newly formed Republic of South Sudan is not a party.)

Sudan fought the lawsuits for several years, but stopped participating after failing to convince the trial judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that the court lacked jurisdiction. Iran has never participated.

U.S. District Judge John Bates in 2011 ruled Iran and Sudan were liable for supporting the embassy attacks under the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Following a three-day hearing in October 2010, Bates found that the Iranian and Sudanese governments provided material aid and support to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, who carried out the attacks.

The case represented an early test of a 2008 amendment to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act that allowed foreign nationals working for the U.S. government to sue a state sponsor of terrorism. Bates found the amendment didn’t apply to the foreign nationals’ families, but ruled they could proceed in federal court under local laws in the District of Columbia.

Bates entered three sets of judgments. He awarded more than $487 million to 12 victims, who were U.S. citizens, and their family members; $419 million to four Tanzanian citizens and their family members; and $49 million to an additional two U.S. citizen victims and their families.

“Damages awards cannot fully compensate people whose lives have been torn apart; instead, they offer only a helping hand. But that is the very least that these plaintiffs are owed,” Bates wrote. “Hence, it is what [the] court will facilitate.”

A lead attorney for most of the U.S. citizen victims as well as the Tanzanian victims, Thomas Fay of Fay Kaplan Law in Washington, said plaintiffs lawyers would begin the often time-consuming and difficult process of finding Iranian and Sudanese assets. Judgments are notoriously difficult to collect in state-sponsored terrorism cases.

Although Iran typically doesn’t participate in lower court proceedings, it has fought efforts to collect U.S.-based assets. Fay is involved in a case in New York in which Iran is fighting a federal judge’s order that Citibank N.A. turn over $1.9 billion in blocked Iranian assets.

Lead counsel for the other U.S. citizen victims and their families, Jane Norman of Bond & Norman in Washington, could not immediately be reached for comment.

A spokesman for the Sudanese embassy in Washington, Seif Yasin, said in an email that although there “is no question that the incident was tragic … there is no rationale in going after a country that had nothing to do with this terrible event.”

Yasin questioned the court’s decision in favor of the plaintiffs, given the previous dismissal of a lawsuit filed in D.C. federal court against the U.S. government concerning 1998 missile strikes on a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant. The missile strikes were in response to the embassy bombings, according to court documents, but U.S. officials later backtracked on statements linking the plant to Osama bin Laden.

Chief Judge Richard Roberts dismissed the case and his order was affirmed in June 2010 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

“Sudanese cannot comprehend that this is the same justice system that failed them in their case against [the] U.S. government,” Yasin said.

Contact Zoe Tillman at ztillman@alm.com. On Twitter: @zoetillman.