SCOTUS: Sudan liable for terrorism damages


The US Supreme Court ruled May 18 in Opati v. Republic of Sudan that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) permits a punitive damages award against Sudan for the role it played in the 1998 al-Qaeda bombings at the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Following the bombings, victims and family members sued Sudan under the “state-sponsored terrorism exception” to the FSIA, but the act at the time included no provision for punitive damages in suits filed under the “exception.” Congress amended the act in 2008 to allow punitive damages in such cases. A district court in 2017 awarded a $6 billion judgment against Sudan, but the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the amendment did not allow plaintiffs to seek damages for attacks that occurred before its enactment. The Supreme Court disagreed, and held that Congress intended the amendment to apply retroactively.

Plaintiffs in the case argued that Sudan had harbored al-Qaeda leaders who plotted the attacks, including Osama bin Laden. Officials in Khartoum have been seeking a settlement with the victims outside the court for much lesser amounts. The precarious economic situation of Sudan following the ouster of long-ruling strongman Omar Hassan al-Bashir, now exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, may spur the plaintiffs to agree to a settlement.

The Trump administration has made it clear that Sudan must settle all terrorism-related claims to get off the US list of “state sponsors of terrorism” (SSOT). Sudan says the designation is denying it much-needed US support for debt relief from international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. US law prohibits the president from supporting any loans or debt relief for countries that are on the SSOT blacklist (Sudan Tribune, Jurist, National Law Review)

To date, more than 20 people have been charged in connection with the embassy bombings. Several of these individuals have been killed. Six are serving life sentences in US prison, while others are awaiting trial. (FBI)

Map: Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection