The US House of Representatives passed legislation Friday to allow families of victims of the September 11 suicide hijackings to sue foreign sponsors they believe were behind the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Ahead of Sunday's 15th anniversary of September 11, 2001, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) cleared the lower chamber by voice vote, following passage of identical legislation in May by the Senate.
US President Barack Obama will now decide on the measure, which he has strongly opposed. In May, the White House said it was "difficult to imagine" that he would sign JASTA, citing concerns that the law would undermine the US government's sovereign immunity in foreign courts.
If the legislation is vetoed, Congress could pass an override with two-thirds supermajorities in both chambers, which is possible due to the measure's broad bipartisan support.
At the State Department, spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said that the White House position "has not changed."
"While we remain absolutely committed to assisting the families of 9/11 victims, and we sympathize with the motivation behind the legislation, we have serious concerns over the potential negative implications for US interests and our national security," she said.
Family members of victims of the 2001 terrorist strikes, in which hijackers crashed jets in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, have long sought to sue Saudi Arabia, claiming links between the kingdom and the terrorist network al-Qaeda.
According to past media reports, Saudi officials have threatened to sell the kingdom's assets in the United States if such legislation becomes law.
In Friday's debate on the House floor, Congressman Leonard Lance, a New Jersey Republican, said the White House veto threat was due to how the legislation "may compromise our relationship with certain other nations."
"Those nations should recognize the fundamental justice in legal remedies against a terrorist network that killed more than 3,000 Americans," he said.
If it becomes law, the measure would narrow the sovereign immunity of other governments in federal courts, allowing lawsuits against foreign states for injuries, death and damages inside the United States as a result of a tort, including an act of terrorism, committed anywhere by a foreign state or official.
Congressman Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat, was a co-sponsor of the legislation.
"As we commemorate the 15th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the passage of JASTA is one more step that will ensure those responsible for aiding and abetting the 9/11 attacks are held accountable for their actions," he wrote on Facebook.
Congressman Daniel Donovan, a New York Republican, described how residents of his district in New York City's Staten Island and Brooklyn boroughs died in the collapse of the World Trade Centre in Manhattan. The legislation gives those families "their day in court."
"Sovereign immunity should not be allowed as a shield of protection," Donovan said, "for persons or nations that fund terrorists and cause mass murder.
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