By Terence J. Kivlan
Staten Island Advance
June 25, 2006
WASHINGTON — Lawyers for 9/11 family members staged a major media event here in August 2002 to announce a $1 trillion lawsuit against the alleged Saudi bankrollers of Osama bin Laden.
The scores of defendants included a slew of Saudi princes and other wealthy citizens of the Kingdom; the bin Laden family construction conglomerate; seven international banks based in Riyadh, and eight Islamic foundations and charities.
The lawyers warned the relatives not to expect to collect any damages any time soon.
“It could be a three- or four-year struggle,” said lead attorney Ron Motley of South Carolina at a press conference here attended by dozens of the several thousand relatives who had joined the legal action.
But as the fourth anniversary of the media event approaches, the chances of a successful outcome seem more remote than ever due to a series of rulings that have cast a pall over the plaintiffs’ case.
YEARS TO GO
Their attorneys now estimate that it could be another several years before the lawsuit goes to trial.
“It is a very complicated case,” said Jack Cordray, a top Motley associate based in Charleston, S.C.
Cordray noted that it was not until last year that a jury began hearing testimony on the civil suit filed shortly after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing against the Port Authority, the owner of the complex.
The biggest court setback for the 9/11 suit came in January 2005 when Manhattan U.S. District Court Judge Richard Casey dismissed as defendants three key Saudi royal family members — Prince Mohammed Al-Faisel Al-Saud, Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, and Prince Turki Al Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence chief and current ambassador to Great Britain.
Casey ruled that the three princes were protected by the sovereign immunity of foreign officials from the jurisdiction of U.S. courts.
In addition, the judge cited the 9/11 commission’s 2004 report that it “found no evidence that that the Saudi government … or senior officials within the Saudi government funded al Qaeda.”
At least while it is being appealed, Casey’s decision has virtually eliminated any possibility that the Saudis would settle the lawsuit.
“The political pressure has been lifted,” acknowledged John D’Amato, a West Brighton lawyer representing the hundreds of Staten Island plaintiffs.
“Had they remained in the case, the pressure would have been enormous for them to settle,” D’Amato said. “A trial would have been very embarrassing for the royal family.”
In the same 2005 ruling, Casey also dropped several Saudi banks as defendants. In another reversal for the 9/11 families nine months later, the judge dismissed all complaints against a major Saudi charity, the Saudi High Commission.
But while the defeats suffered by the plaintiffs have gotten a lot of publicity, they have scored some important victories. Casey has refused to let off the hook other key defendants, including the bin Laden family construction group and the International Islamic Relief Organization, which the suit alleges was used as a money-laundering operation for al Qaeda.
A team of plaintiffs’ lawyers continue to work full time on the case, pressing appeals of the unfavorable rulings and moving forward with discovery against defendants still in the case.
“Hardly a day goes by in which there is not filing in the lawsuit,” said Cordray.
“It may take years, but justice will be delivered at the end of the day,” said D’Amato.
STILL GATHERING EVIDENCE
In the meanwhile, the legal team’s investigators are continuing to gather evidence for the lawsuit and have so far amassed over 100,000 documents from countries around the globe tracking the financial links between the Saudis and al Qaeda, D’Amato said.
Still, some of the plaintiffs are growing increasingly frustrated at the slow progress of the case, and blame it on the U.S. government’s refusal to release relevant information, such as a 28-page discussion on foreign involvement in 9/11 included in the congressional intelligence committee’s 2003 report on the 2001 terrorist hijackings.
The section of the report, which is believed to lay out evidence of possible Saudi financial aid to al Qaeda and Palestinian terrorist group, was classified and blacked out at the insistence of the Bush administration. White House officials said its release would compromise ongoing investigations.
“I am sure the information on those 28 pages would help our lawsuit,” said William Doyle of Annadale, who lost a son at the World Trade Center.
Members of the 9/11 commission said they did an exhaustive follow-up investigation of the allegations in the 28 pages and found no evidence that top Saudi officials helped finance al Qaeda.
FOLLOWED EVERY LEAD
“We followed every lead into the ground,” Commission Chairman Tom Kean told reporters after the panel issued its report in July 2004.
But Doyle and Cordray are not buying the commission’s finding.
“They say they found no evidence of Saudi financial involvement,” said Cordray. “They were probably not shown any evidence.”
“Why not release the 28 pages and let the public decide,” said Doyle.
Another high-profile plaintiff, former Eltingville resident Joan Molinaro, expressed disappointment that the “court rulings seem to be going against us,” but said she was confident of victory over the long-haul.
“We all went into this with our eyes wide open,” she said. “We all knew that if the case was successful, it would be for our grandchildren.”
Michael Cinelli, a Houston spokesman for Baker and Botts, the firm representing Prince Sultan and several other defendants, declined to comment on the lawsuit except to agree that “it will take years to resolve.”
Terence J. Kivlan is Washington correspondent for the Advance. He may be reached at email@example.com.
(c) 2006 Staten Island Advance
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