US judge says 9/11 families not entitled to Afghan bank funds

District judge says victims cannot seize bank’s assets since the US has not recognised the Taliban as a legitimate government.

Children carry containers to fetch drinking water along a road during a cold winter day in Yaftal Sufla district of Badakhshan Province on January 18, 2023. - At least 70 people have died in a wave of freezing temperatures sweeping Afghanistan, officials said on Janaury 18, as extreme weather compounds a humanitarian crisis in the poverty-stricken nation. (Photo by OMER ABRAR / AFP)
People in Afghanistan have struggled with issues such as poverty and food shortages following the Taliban's ascension to power in August 2021 [File: Omer Abrar/AFP]

A United States judge has ruled that family members of victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are not entitled to funds from Afghanistan’s central bank.

In the ruling on Tuesday, US District Judge George Daniels said that awarding the families money seized from the Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB) would require an assessment that the Taliban is the legitimate government of Afghanistan, a decision he was “constitutionally restrained” from making.

“The judgment creditors are entitled to collect on their default judgments and be made whole for the worst terrorist attack in our nation’s history, but they cannot do so with the funds of the central bank of Afghanistan,” Daniels wrote.

“The Taliban — not the former Islamic Republic of Afghanistan or the Afghan people — must pay for the Taliban’s liability in the 9/11 attacks,” he added.

In February 2022, the administration of US President Joe Biden issued a controversial executive order stating it would split $7bn in frozen assets from Afghanistan’s central bank between the Afghan people and families of 9/11 victims who sued the Taliban.

While the Taliban was not directly involved in the attacks, lawyers for the families argued it had helped enable al-Qaeda, which mounted the attack, by allowing the group to operate in Afghanistan.

Bilal Askaryar, an Afghan-American activist, told Al Jazeera at the time of the order that the Afghan people “had nothing to do with 9/11” and called the decision a “theft of public funds from an impoverished nation”.

Tuesday’s ruling upholds a previous decision in August 2022, when US Magistrate Judge Sarah Netburn also recommended that victims of 9/11 could not seize cash from the Afghan central bank to satisfy court judgements against the Taliban.

Doing so would mean acknowledging the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan, something Netburn said only the US president can do.

Since the Taliban swept aside the US-backed government and took power in August 2021, the Biden administration has not recognised the group as the country’s official ruling party.

In response to the ruling, Lee Wolosky, a lawyer for one creditor group known as the Havlish plaintiffs, called the conclusion “wrongly decided” and said the group would appeal.

“This decision deprives over 10,000 members of the 9/11 community of their right to collect compensation from the Taliban,” he said.

In a statement sent to Al Jazeera via text on Tuesday, Arash Azizzada, co-founder of the US-based Afghans For a Better Tomorrow, welcomed the decision.

“Justice will not be served by raiding the coffers of a people suffering from one of the worst humanitarian crises on the planet,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera, Reuters