June 28, 2019 / 2:01 PM / 18 days ago

U.S. Supreme Court to mull punitive damages against Sudan over embassy bombings

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear a bid to reinstate $4.3 billion in punitive damages against Sudan in a lawsuit accusing it of complicity in the 1998 al Qaeda bombings of two U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people.

FILE PHOTO: Students walk up the steps during a visit to the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., June 21, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

The justices took up an appeal by hundreds of people hurt and relatives of people killed in the bombings as they seek to reinstate the punitive damages that a lower court in 2017 ruled could not be levied against Sudan in addition to about $6 billion in compensatory damages imposed in the litigation.

Twelve Americans were among the dead in the Aug. 7, 1998, attacks, with thousands of other people wounded.

The damages were imposed by default because for most of the litigation Sudan did not appear before a lower court to defend itself against allegations that it harbored and provided support to the Islamist militant group al Qaeda, which led to the bombings.

The truck bombs that detonated outside the embassies in Kenya’s capital Nairobi as well as Dar es Salaam, Tanzania marked the first large-scale al Qaeda attack. Three years later, on Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda operatives crashed hijacked planes into New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon outside Washington and a Pennsylvania field, killing nearly 3,000 people.

The plaintiffs sued in federal court in Washington under the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which generally bars claims against foreign countries except those designated by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism, as Sudan has been since 1993. Other claims were made under local District of Columbia law.

After a first lawsuit over the embassy bombings was filed in 2001, six others followed involving more than 700 plaintiffs who were killed or injured in the attacks, or are family members of the victims.

A federal judge found Sudan liable and ordered it to pay $10.2 billion, including $4.3 in punitive damages, to the plaintiffs. In 2017, the U.S. 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 was enacted after the bombings occurred and cannot be applied retroactively.

President Donald Trump’s administration urged the Supreme Court to hear the case and reinstate the punitive damages award.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case during its next term, which begins in October, with a ruling due before June 2020.

The court in March prevented American sailors who had accused Sudan of complicity in the 2000 al Qaeda bombing of the Navy destroyer USS Cole that killed 17 sailors from collecting damages.

Besides lawsuits over the embassy bombings, a number of defendants have been convicted in U.S. criminal courts in connection with the attacks.

Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham

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