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U.S. judge says Saudi officials must testify in lawsuit related to September 11 attacks

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. judge directed Saudi Arabia’s government to make 24 current and former officials, including a former ambassador to the United States, available for questioning in litigation claiming it provided assistance for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, lawyers for victims said on Friday.

A man looks at The Tribute in Light installation from Liberty State Park, marking the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in New York City, as seen from Jersey City, New Jersey, U.S., September 11, 2020. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Saudi Arabia has long denied involvement in the attacks, where nearly 3,000 people died as hijacked airplanes crashed into New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon outside Washington and a field in western Pennsylvania.

The Saudi government’s media office did not immediately respond to a request for comment after business hours. A Washington-based lawyer for the country declined to comment.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Sarah Netburn’s decision was made public on Thursday in Manhattan federal court.

It followed another judge’s March 2018 rejection of Saudi Arabia’s bid to dismiss the litigation, where families of those killed, tens of thousands of people who suffered injuries, businesses and insurers are seeking billions of dollars in damages.

While rejecting some of the plaintiffs’ requests for depositions, Netburn said those who could be questioned included Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States from 1983 to 2005 and a member of the Saudi royal family.

She said Saudi Arabia “persuasively” argued that documents did not suggest the prince oversaw the work of two officials the plaintiffs linked to the attacks.

But the judge said the plaintiffs’ materials indicated he “likely has first-hand knowledge” of the role one official “was assigned by the Kingdom and the diplomatic cover provided to the

propagators” working in the United States.

It was not immediately clear how Saudi Arabia might arrange for or compel testimony by its citizens, including those no longer in the government.

James Kreindler, a lawyer for the victims, called the decision a “major development” because Saudi Arabia had produced little documentation concerning its government officials working in the United States before the attacks.

The case is In re: Terrorist Attacks on September 11, 2001, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 03-md-01570.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Additional reporting by Marwa Rashad in Riyadh; Editing by Tom Brown