Thursday, March 15, 2007

Justice for the Cole

A federal judge in Norfolk has ruled that Sudan was responsible for the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, and is liable for paying damages to the families of the sailors who died in the attack.

Federal District Judge Robert Doumar, a Reagan appointee, announced his ruling yesterday. The judge is expected to issue a written opinion in the near future, to explain his reasoning. Judge Doumar has asked for additional documentation--including tax returns from the dead sailors--to help him calculate damages.

Attorneys for the sailors' families contended that Sudanese support for Al Qaida helped the terrorist group mount the October 12, 2000 attack on the Cole, which was in port at Aden, Yemen. A small boat packed with explosives rammed the destroyer as it sat at a refueling berth, ripping a 40-foot hole in its side, and killing 17 members of the crew. After the attack, the Cole was out of commission for almost 18 months, and the ship required extensive repairs to return to operational service.

Fittingly, the lawsuit against Sudan was heard in a federal court house only miles from the Norfolk Naval Base, where the Cole is based. Four experts on terrorism testified--either by deposition or in person--that Sudanese support was instrumental in the attack. They noted that the Sudanese government allows terror training camps to operate on its soil, and gave Al Qaida members diplomatic passports and pouches to ship explosives and weapons. Lawyers representing the Khartoum government tried to have the lawsuit dismisssed, claiming that too much time had passed since the attack occurred.

Judge Doumar heard the case without a jury, and it's unclear how much money he may award to the plantiffs. Attorneys for the victims' families had requested $105 million in damages, but Doumar has indicated that he he is inclined to apply the Death on the High Seas Act, which permits compensation for economic losses but not for pain and suffering. That could reduce the eventual award to $25-30 million, and it will be up to attorneys to actually collect damages from Sudanese assets frozen in the United States.

Incidentally, Judge Doumar is of Syrian and Lebanese descent. He became something of a darling of the ACLU crowd back in 2002, when he ruled that the government could not deny legal counsel to Yaser Hamdi, the American-born Al Qaida fighter who was captured in Afghanistan. A few years ealier, Doumar infuriated some of the same civil liberties types by opining that "people with HIV that have unprotected sex should be shot."

Obviously, yesterday's ruling won't bring back the heroes of the Cole, or ease the anguish and loss felt by their families. But it does provide a measure of justice for the sailors who were murdered in Aden harbor, with the willing assistance of the Sudanese government.

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