WASHINGTON • The United States Senate has passed legislation that would allow families of Sept 11 victims to sue the government of Saudi Arabia for damages.
The move could lead to a showdown with the White House, which has threatened to veto the Bill.
The Saudis, who deny responsibility for the 2001 attacks, strongly object to the Bill. They have threatened to sell up to US$750 billion (S$1 trillion) in US securities and other American assets in retaliation if the Bill becomes law.
The "Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act," or Jasta, was passed by the Senate by unanimous voice vote on Tuesday. It must next be taken up by the US House of Representatives, where the Judiciary Committee intends to hold a hearing on the measure in the near future, an aide said.
If it becomes law, Jasta would remove sovereign immunity - preventing lawsuits against governments - for countries found to be involved in terror attacks on US soil. It would allow survivors of the attacks and relatives of victims to seek damages from other countries.
The Saudis... have threatened to sell up to US$750 billion (S$1 trillion) in US securities and other American assets in retaliation if the Bill becomes law.
In this case, it would allow lawsuits to proceed in a New York federal court, where lawyers will try to prove that the Saudis were involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir said Riyadh's objection is based on principles of international relations. "What (Congress is) doing is stripping away the principle of sovereign immunities, which would turn the world from international law into the law of the jungle," he said in a statement.
Prominent trial lawyer James Kreindler, who represents 9/11 families - and has won large payouts for the victims of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 - said he expected the Bill to pass in the House and become law.
"It would be crazy for President Barack Obama to veto bipartisan legislation that would open US courts to victims of the worst terrorist attack in US history," he added.
Republican Senator John Cornyn, also a sponsor of the Bill, said Jasta does not target the Saudis, although he alluded to a still-classified section of a report on the Sept 11 attacks that Saudi critics say might implicate Riyadh. "We have yet to see the 28 pages that have not been yet released about the 9/11 report, and that may well be instructive," said Mr Cornyn at a news conference on Tuesday.
He said it was up to the court to decide whether the Saudis were liable. "I don't believe that this will be destructive for the relationship that we have with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia," he said.
The White House said Mr Obama still plans to veto Jasta. "This legislation would change longstanding international law regarding sovereign immunity," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
"And the President of the United States continues to harbour serious concerns that this legislation would make the US vulnerable in other court systems around the world."