A US judge has directed Saudi Arabia to make 24 current and former officials available for testimony about their possible knowledge of events leading up to the September 11, 2001 attacks.
In a written ruling, Federal Magistrate Judge Sarah Netburn in New York ordered testimonies from the Saudi officials, among them Prince Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, the kingdom’s ambassador to the US from 1983 to 2005, and his longtime chief of staff Ahmed al-Qattan.
James Kreindler, a lawyer for the victims, called the decision a "major development" because the Riyadh regime had produced little documentation concerning its officials working in the United States before the attacks.
Although it is unclear how and when the witnesses will be deposed, the order means “we can start uncovering what they know,” he added.
Andrew Maloney, another member of the legal team representing the 9/11 victims' families, said, "Saudi Arabia thus far has not agreed to produce the witnesses identified in the order and may still challenge or seek to minimize the implications of the ruling."
"Nonetheless, this is a major development in this case."
Brett Eagleson, a spokesman for the families, described the ruling as “a game changer.”
“This is the most significant ruling we’ve had to date in this lawsuit. And to have this on the eve of the anniversary of 9/11, you couldn’t script this any better. The families are elated.”
Saudi Arabia has denied involvement in the 9/11 attacks, in which nearly 3,000 people were allegedly killed when hijacked planes crashed into New York's World Trade Center, the Pentagon outside Washington, DC, and a field in western Pennsylvania.
Families of the victims believe some Saudi officials were either complicit in the attacks or aware of the kingdom’s support for some of the hijackers.
Judge Netburn’s decision followed another judge's March 2018 rejection of Saudi Arabia's bid to dismiss the litigation, in which families of those killed and injured, as well as businesses and insurers, are seeking billions of dollars in damages.
She said Saudi Arabia "persuasively" argued that documents did not suggest Prince Bandar oversaw the work of two officials the plaintiffs linked to the attacks.
Those officials are identified as Mussaed Ahmed al-Jarrah, a mid-ranking Saudi diplomat who served at the Saudi embassy in Washington between 1999 and 2000, and Fahad al-Thumairy, a radical Saudi cleric who was the imam of the King Fahd Mosque in Los Angeles.
Still, Netburn added, the plaintiffs' materials indicated Prince Bandar "likely has first-hand knowledge" of the role one official "was assigned by the Kingdom and the diplomatic cover provided to the propagators" working in the US.
The judge further authorized the deposition of Qattan, saying court documents show that he “likely has unique firsthand knowledge of al-Jarrah and al-Thumairy’s relevant pre-9/11 activity and any post-9/11 ratification of their conduct.”
Al-Jarrah is suspected of having directed support for two of the al-Qaeda-linked hijackers. The Saudi diplomat’s name was supposed to be blacked out, but his identity was accidentally revealed by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in filling.
Back in March, a legal team representing the 9/11 attacks’ survivors and families, said Saudi authorities had tried to silence at least four of their witnesses in the case. Therefore, it was requested that the identities of the witnesses in the legal battle be protected and kept secret.
The FBI’s accidental disclosure of the name prompted families and lawyers of the victims to call on President Donald Trump to release documents about the embassy official.
The families seeking to sue Saudi Arabia for alleged involvement in the terror attacks have long sought information about the diplomat.
But the Trump administration said since it was an erroneous disclosure, the name was still subject to a protective order and neither side was allowed to discuss it publicly.
The Trump administration has also withheld the underlying evidence gathered by the FBI officials regarding al-Jarrah’s potential involvement.
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