New York - A US appeals court reinstated Saudi Arabia as a defendant Thursday in lawsuits claiming it had provided support to al-Qaida prior to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks.
A three-judge panel of the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals said restoring Saudi Arabia was necessary to be consistent with a ruling by a different 2nd Circuit panel that allowed another lawsuit to go forward in which a man sued Afghanistan and other defendants for the death of his wife in the attacks.
The 2nd Circuit and a lower court had previously ruled that Saudi Arabia was protected by sovereign immunity, which generally means that foreign countries can't be sued in American courts.
But in its latest ruling, the 2nd Circuit said a legal exception existed that would allow Saudi Arabia to remain as a defendant, just as Afghanistan remained in the similar case.
An attorney representing Saudi Arabia said the panel's decision is "contrary to settled law" and will only result in a lower court throwing the case out for other reasons, citing the dismissal of identical allegations against other Saudi government agencies that the 2nd Circuit itself already upheld.
"It is extremely unfortunate and burdensome that a sovereign nation and ally of the United States will continue to have to litigate this matter more than 10 years after it was filed," said attorney Michael Kellogg.
The lawsuits were brought in 2002 and afterward against countries, companies and organizations accused of aiding al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. They sought billions of dollars in damages.
In the lawsuits, lawyers argued that the 11 September 2001 attacks had been planned for years by a network of Islamic militants with the assistance of banks, governments and individuals.
Lawyers in the 11 September cases have frequently cited the report by the September 11 Commission. Lawyers for the plaintiffs have said the commission supported their argument that Saudi Arabia had long been considered the primary source of al-Qaeda funding while lawyers for Saudi Arabia have argued that the commission found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded al-Qaeda.
Kellogg said the panel's decision has nothing to do with the merits of the plaintiffs' claims.
"The government of Saudi Arabia has long asserted, and the United States 9/11 Commission has found, that those allegations are categorically false," Kellogg said.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs did not immediately return messages for comment.