The U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in the aftermath of the August 7, 1998, al-Qaida suicide bombing. (Photo: U.S. Department of State)
Victims of deadly terrorist attacks in 1998 at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were awarded more than $8 billion on Friday by a federal judge in Washington, D.C.
Combined, the four judgments (see the opinions here, here, here and here) entered by U.S. District Judge John Bates represented one of the largest sets of awards since 2008, when Congress approved legislation to make it easier for terror victims to sue foreign governments over responsibility for attacks.
“There’s no amount of money that can compensate people for the loss,” said Gavriel Mairone of MM~LAW in Chicago, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs. “But the point is that this is not about compensation, it’s about trying to bring the rule of law across the world.”
The two bombings at the embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killed hundreds and injured thousands.
Most of the plaintiffs at the heart of Friday’s orders were foreign nationals—several hundred Kenyan and Tanzanian individuals who worked at the U.S. embassies and were killed or injured in the attacks, along with their families. The plaintiffs also included U.S. citizens. The victims sued to hold the governments of Iran and Sudan responsible for supporting the bombings.
The 2008 amendment to the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act opened the door to lawsuits brought by foreign citizens working for the U.S. government.
Steven Perles of the Perles Law Firm in Washington, also a lawyer for the plaintiffs, credited Vice President Joe Biden with moving through the 2008 legislative changes affecting foreign citizens working for the United States when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Biden “single-handedly moved for relief for foreign State Department employees, those local personnel who serve in our embassies,” Perles said.
Bates and other judges in the federal court in Washington have awarded a series of high-dollar judgments to victims of terrorism and their family members since 2008. In May 2013, Bates awarded $8.4 billion to victims of the 1983 and 1984 bombings at the U.S. embassy in Beirut, Lebanon 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. Hence, it is what this court will facilitate,” Bates wrote in the rulings.
The plaintiffs face an uphill climb in collecting the money. Iran and Sudan have not participated in the litigation, and Iran has yet to pay nearly $18 billion it already owes from other judgments in terrorism cases in the D.C. court. (The Iranian government didn’t participate in those cases either.) Mairone said the plaintiffs’ legal team is in the process of identifying assets they might be able to attach and is optimistic about being able to collect for their clients.
“A couple of years ago, if we looked at this kind of judgment we’d think, well, it’s a great moral victory but the odds of it being a practical victory are rather stretched,” Mairone said. “But I don’t think that’s the reality today.” He declined to discuss the details of efforts to locate Iranian and Sudanese assets.
Other firms representing the embassy bombing plaintiffs include the Law Firm of Allen L. Rothenberg in Philadelphia; The Miller Firm in Orange, Va.; Eaves Law Firm in Jackson, Miss.; and Wheeler & Franks Law Firm in Tupelo, Miss.
Earlier this month, a three-judge panel in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled in favor of victims who brought other terrorism cases against Iran and were trying to claim nearly $2 billion in frozen assets in New York bank accounts. The claimants had argued the accounts belonged to an Iranian state-run bank and should be turned over to satisfy outstanding judgments.
On Wednesday, lawyers for the Iranian bank asked for a rehearing before the Second Circuit panel and a full sitting of the court.