US judge says Saudi officials must testify in 9/11 lawsuit

Riyadh denies involvement in the September 11, 2001 attacks, but lawsuits alleging its support persist in US courts.

9/11 Families & Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism rally
Sean Passananit, holding a picture of his father who was killed in the 9/11 attacks, protests against US President Barack Obama's plan to veto the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act in 2016 [File: EPA]

A US 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 September 11, 2001 attacks, lawyers for victims said on Friday.

Saudi Arabia has long denied involvement in the attacks, in which nearly 3,000 people were killed as hijacked aeroplanes crashed into New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon outside Washington, DC, 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, DC-based lawyer for the country declined a request for comment by Reuters news agency.

US 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 US from 1983 to 2005 and a member of the Saudi royal family.

9/11 Pentagon memorial
Members of the US military salute during the 19th annual September 11 observance ceremony at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, on September 11, 2020 [Erin Scott/Reuters]

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 US.

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 US before the attacks.

Source: Reuters