WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. government is moving closer to intervening in a high-stakes civil case over deadly Palestinian terror attacks as officials met Tuesday with victims' families to discuss concerns over a jury verdict worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The meeting with representatives from the Justice and State departments came amid objections from a lawyer for the plaintiffs, who said the United States was "considering putting a thumb on the scale" because the Palestinian government opposes the jury verdict.
"The Palestinians got a fair trial. The judgment was foreseeable, and they can afford to pay it over time," attorney Kent Yalowitz said in an interview.
At issue is $218.5 million in damages awarded by a New York jury in February for attacks that killed 33 people and wounded hundreds more — a penalty that lawyers say would be automatically tripled under the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act, but that the State Department fears could weaken the stability of the Palestinian government.
The case has represented one of the most notable efforts by American victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to seek damages in U.S. courts, though the plaintiffs may face challenges in trying to collect. The Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which were held liable for the bloodshed following dramatic testimony from survivors and victims' relatives, have indicated that they are unable to pay the damages and won't provide money while their appeal is pending.
State Department officials are concerned that monthly bond payments sought by the victims would put the cash-squeezed Palestinian Authority on shaky financial ground and weaken the group's ability to govern. The Justice Department, at the urging of the State Department, is likely to file a statement of interest in the case soon that asserts the importance of victims' rights but that also urges a judge to keep in mind potential economic and national security ramifications associated with the verdict, according to an official who was not authorized to discuss the matter by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.
"While we cannot comment on the substance of any possible filing, any filing would be a statement of the interests of the United States and not on behalf of the PA or any other party," according to a joint statement issued by the Justice and State departments.
In a letter this week to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the victims urged the government to stay out of the dispute and not "undermine the judgment in our case without taking into account the very real ability of the PLO and the PA to pay the judgment over time and stand accountable for their crimes."
"It causes us great pain to know that our Government might attempt to undermine the judgment in our case without taking into account the very real ability of the PLO and the PA to pay the judgment over time and stand accountable for their crimes," the letter states.
The plaintiffs said they were seeking small monthly installments rather than a lump sum, which they say makes the penalty more reasonable.
"This is a very practical solution that will allow us to ensure that over time the funds will be available to satisfy our judgment without destroying their ability to function," they said.
The case was brought in New York by a group of American families and concerns a series of bombings and shootings between 2002 and 2004. Jurors heard dramatic testimony from relatives of people killed and survivors who never fully recovered.
The plaintiffs also relied on internal records showing the Palestinian Authority continued to pay the salaries of employees who were put behind bars in terror cases and paid benefits to families of suicide bombers and gunmen who died committing the attacks. But a defense lawyer argued that there was no evidence that the Palestinian authorities had sanctioned the attacks, as alleged in the lawsuit.
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