Sudan Sued by Families for Sponsoring Terrorism

Seventeen families representing USS Cole bombing victims are suing the government of Sudan in federal court. A federal judge in Norfolk, Va., has scheduled the case for trial. This lawsuit is one of many attempting to make it very expensive for countries to sponsor terrorism.

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A federal judge in Virginia has agreed to hear a lawsuit against the country of Sudan. The families of 17 sailors killed on the USS Cole in 2000 claim Sudan's leaders helped al-Qaida to bomb the ship.

This case is one of several where victims' families pursue countries with ties to terrorists. One major challenge is actually collecting money.

Eric Niiler reports.

ERIC NIILER reporting:

The living room walls of John Clodfelter's two-story home near Richmond are covered with images of the USS Cole and framed photos of his son, Kenneth. One picture shows four smiling sailors in white dress uniforms standing on the destroyer's deck.

Mr. JOHN CLODFELTER (Father of Victim): This was the last time we saw Kenneth, actually. That's he last time we saw him alive. Initially, when they told us about the attack, and they said that there were four that were confirmed dead, we thought these four? But it wasn't, because he's alive, he's alive, and he's alive. Kenneth was the only one that was killed.

NIILER: Kenneth Clodfelter was killed when a small boat carrying al-Qaida operatives rammed the Cole with explosives in October of 2000. The Cole was docked in Yemen.

But lawyers for the families say the terrorist group received help from the Sudanese government. Clodfelter and other family members have been asking for financial compensation from Congress. Now the families have turned to the courts.

They are seeking one hundred million dollars in damages from Sudan. Clodfelter explains why.

Mr. CLODFELTER: You know, because that's where al-Qaida was trained, that's where al-Qaida was, you know, they allowed al-Qaida to go ahead and come and go as they pleased, basically. That and they gave them funding and stuff. I mean it was just unreal.

NIILER: Lawyers for the Cole families say Sudan has assets in the United States, and a growing supply of oil that could be tapped to pay their claim.

Norfolk attorney Greg Stillman represents Sudan. He says the lawsuit doesn't connect the dots between the Cole bombing and his client. But Stillman says Sudan is trying to play by the rules.

Mr. GREG STILLMAN (Attorney for Sudan): The one good news for the plaintiffs in this case is the government of Sudan is willing to participate in this process. To their credit, they could have chosen simply to ignore it.

NIILER: Washington attorney Steve Perles is bringing the claims against both Sudan and Iran on behalf of families killed in various terrorism incidents. He says the goal is to make sponsoring terrorism too expensive for these countries.

Mr. STEVE PERLES (Attorney for Victims' Families): They're either going to have to pay massive judgments or they're going to have to stop detonating bombs where U.S. nationals are placed at risk.

NIILER: Perles has won several big judgments against Iran, but so far U.S. taxpayers have been paying the claims rather than Iran's leaders. Iran doesn't have money here in the U.S., and lawyers can't put a hold on Iran's diplomatic buildings.

Some victims' families had more luck with Congress, which gave $380 million dollars to 14 terror victims back in 2000. Now other victims' families want a similar deal.

Ms. LYNN SMITH DERBYSHIRE (Sister of Victim): I do not want revenge. I don't want some young Iranian woman to have to weep at the closed casket of her brother like I did. I don't want to go blow them up. I just want justice.

NIILER: Lynn Smith Derbyshire's brother was killed in the 1983 Beirut bombing, along with nearly 300 other U.S. Marines. She wants Iran's government to pay. The problem is that Iran already has eight billion dollars in claims against it. Iran hasn't even bothered to show up in court. But maybe Sudan will be different.

Kenneth Katzman is senior analyst at the Congressional Research Service who follows international law. He says countries sometimes settle legal disputes if it helps them rejoin the international community.

Mr. KENNETH KATZMAN (senior analyst, Congressional Research Service): Sudan wants to try to end its isolation, wants to improve relations with the United States. And maybe there's a perception that it might be more responsive and more willing to provide compensation to terrorism victims.

NIILER: The U.S. State Department says it wants a more equitable way of compensating victims, rather than the piecemeal approach so far.

Congress is considering whether to offer $262,000 dollars to survivors of U.S. civilians killed by terrorism from abroad. Military personnel, like those on the USS Cole or the Beirut Marine barracks, would not qualify.

For NPR News, I'm Eric Niiler.

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