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Story last updated at 7:26 a.m. Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Terror lawsuit ruling shocks local law firm

Saudi princes have immunity from 9-11 suit

Of The Post and Courier Staff

In a major setback for the controversial Sept. 11 lawsuit, a federal judge tossed out claims against two Saudi Arabian princes, ruling that they cannot be sued because they are foreign leaders.

The court's decision was a vindication for the princes, said Mark Hanson, a Washington, D.C., attorney for Prince Turki al-Faisal, former head of Saudi intelligence.

"Government decisions should be challenged on a government-to-government basis, not through private lawsuits," Hanson said.

The judge's ruling stunned the Charleston-area legal team bringing the case on behalf of more than 4,000 Sept. 11 victims and their families.

"We didn't uncork any champagne," said Ron Motley, lead co-counsel for the families. "We're disappointed."

The two princes were perhaps the most prominent and wealthy targets of the lawsuit, which has roiled financial markets and prompted Saudis to call for boycotts of American goods.

As Saudi intelligence director, Prince Turki had close ties with top U.S. officials and is now Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Great Britain. Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz is the third-ranking leader in Saudi Arabia.The lawsuit alleged that in the late 1990s, Prince Turki gave the Taliban and al-Qaida money and other support in exchange for a promise not to attack Saudi interests.

The lawsuit said that Prince Sultan donated money to Islamic charities that supported terrorists.

Both princes vehemently denied the allegations. Their attorneys also argued that allowing the lawsuit to proceed could have enormous political ramifications.

In an affidavit, Charles Freeman, president of the Middle East Policies Council and former diplomat, said the claims against Saudi officials would undermine relations between the U.S. and its key Middle East ally.

He said that courts in other countries also might consider retaliatory lawsuits against U.S. leaders. Freeman's group receives money from the Saudi government.

In the 28-page order issued late Friday, U.S. District Judge James Robertson said "... whatever their actions, they were performed in their official (government) capacities." As such, they have immunity from lawsuits.

The judge did say that the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act has a few exceptions that allow suits to be brought against government leaders but that the claims against the princes didn't apply.

Prince Sultan's attorney, William Jeffress Jr., said he wasn't surprised by the decision. "This is a novel lawsuit, as I think everyone recognizes."

He said the Sept. 11 families also failed to establish a direct connection between Prince Sultan's contributions to Islamic charities and the attacks.

"If you donate money to the Catholic church, you can't be sued if a priest somewhere is involved in misconduct," Jeffress said.

Hanson said Prince Turki was grateful for the judge's ruling.

"He's deeply sympathetic to the victims of Sept. 11," Hanson said, adding that his client tried to bring Osama bin Laden to justice, not pay him off. "That's one of the bitter ironies of this case."

The ruling is expected to lead to dismissals of claims against a handful of other Saudi royal family members.

The judge left open the issue whether the lawsuit can be brought against defendants that don't have sovereign immunity.

So far, the Sept. 11 families have alleged that more than 200 banks, charities and Saudi businessmen helped bankroll al-Qaida.

"The judge's ruling only affects a small number of defendants," Motley said, adding that the sovereign immunity issue "has nothing to do with innocence or guilt."

Motley said his team was still considering whether to appeal the decision. "We'll press on with the defendants who don't have sovereign immunity."

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