A group of terrorist victims’ families has won a procedural victory that could prove decisive in their civil damages case against the Bank of China for alleged connections with the financing of Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist attacks.
The lawsuits are related to attacks in Israel against Americans between 2003 and 2008. The ruling was in the context of the Wultz case (one of a number, this one on behalf of their murdered son Daniel). It was made in favor of a motion to intervene filed by the NGO Shurat Hadin – Israel Law Center, which represents the families of 22 additional victims.
The bottom line in the actual decision handed down late Friday by Washington, DC, Federal Court judge Reggie Walton – as yet unreported elsewhere – was that he would not decide whether the case’s key witness, former Israeli government agent Uzi Shaya, would have to testify. He left that decision to New York Federal Court judge Shira Scheindlin.
The decision is potentially huge, as the Israeli government and the Bank of China fought with all their might to keep this issue in Washington, knowing that Scheindlin essentially had already ordered Shaya to testify.
His testimony could break the case open for the Wultzes and the 22 other families, something that has elicited deep concern in China – and therefore in Israel, where the government, despite alleged promises to help the families, had turned against them.
The plaintiffs allege that Israel turned its back in November 2013, after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s state visit to China, out of concern that the testimony would harm its business interests there. The Prime Minister’s Office has said its reasons for blocking Shaya from testifying relate to the preservation of classified security information and international cooperation in fighting the financing of terror.
Procedurally, Israel, the Wultzes and Shurat Hadin all filed extensive legal briefs, with Shurat Hadin’s intervenor motion being partially granted by the court to have the issue decided by Scheindlin.
Israel has argued that certain rules mandate that Walton hear the case, saying the plaintiffs had not properly communicated with it about Shaya’s testimony. Walton rejected these arguments, saying Israel was basing its arguments on old rules that had been amended.
Going further, Walton wrote in his opinion: “Due to the highly complex and intricate nature of the underlying litigation, Judge Scheindlin is in a better position to rule on the intervenors’ motion to quash or modify the subpoena due to her familiarity with the full scope of issues involved.”
He added that a ruling by him would “inevitably disrupt Judge Scheindlin’s management of the two highly complex actions currently pending in her court,” as well as affect other related actions pending in New York “about which this court has even less familiarity.”
The plaintiffs say that for years they had expected Shaya to testify to facts already specified in a court affidavit by former Israeli government agent Shlomo Matalon. That affidavit said Israel gave the Bank of China notice in 2005 of certain clients’ accounts being used by terror groups to launder funds for their operations.
Later, in an affidavit by former National Security Council head Ya’acov Amidror, Israel suddenly opposed Shaya testifying.
Following Walton’s ruling, Israel and the bank will need to decide whether to try and convince Scheindlin to change her mind about Shaya testifying. She could hold him in contempt for not testifying, something that could create diplomatic friction in the US-Israel relationship.