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Terror-victim law would only apply to listed countries

A proposed law would allow Canadian victims of terror to sue foreign countries that played a hand in the attacks, but only if those countries are on a list of known terrorist abettors compiled by the federal government.

Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan would not say which states would be designated as sponsors of terrorism. That will have to wait until the legislation is proclaimed into law, he explained. Nor is it clear how successful any suit against a foreign nation would be.

In 1996, the United States amended its Congress Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act to allow American victims of terrorism to sue designated foreign states. By 2008, the U.S. courts had awarded more than $19-billion against those states and their officials, but only about 2 per cent had been collected.

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"Obviously you hope for a higher recovery than that," said Mr. Van Loan, "but that's just a reality in any kind of lawsuit."

Members of the Canadian Coalition Against Terror (CCAT), a victims' group that has pressed for the right to bring foreign entities before Canadian civil courts, say they are concerned the scope of the legislation may be too narrow.

"It's a process which actually puts the government in a position where it has to point a finger at other governments," said Danny Eisen, a CCAT founder who was otherwise complimentary of the initiative. "We would rather allow the courts to do the job in this."

Maureen Basnicki, whose husband, Ken, was killed in the 9/11 attacks, is another founder of CCAT and has been a driving force behind the legislation. She praised the initiative saying the civil suits will complement the criminal justice system in cutting off financing for terrorism.

But neither Ms. Basnicki nor Mr. Eisen, who lost a cousin in the 9/11 attacks, were willing to name specific Canadian victims of terror who would use the new law to go after a foreign government.

Although the law is retroactive to 1985 - presumably to allow victims of the Air India bombing to take part - it was unclear what foreign government could be sued in that case.

A lawyer for CCAT said the law would make it easier for Air India victims to pursue individuals and groups in Canada that are alleged to have participated in a terrorist attack.

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But René Provost, an international law expert at McGill University in Montreal, said existing laws allow victims to sue any people or organizations within Canada that have caused them harm through terrorist activities.

"It's a political ploy because you could [already]do that today and yesterday and five years ago," said Dr. Provost, who sees several other problems with the new legislation.

The first is that terrorism is difficult to define, he said. While there may be no argument about the 9/11 attacks, there are those who would say the U.S. bombing of villages in Afghanistan or the Israeli attacks in southern Lebanon constitute terrorism, Dr. Provost said.

A second problem would be to attribute an act of terror to a foreign government, he said. And a third potential problem is that "it invites retaliation by the other governments."

That concern is shared by New Democratic Party MP Joe Comartin who has supported the introduction of legislation that would allow terror victims to sue foreign governments.

By drawing up a list of countries that Canada considers supporters of terror, he said, "we ultimately could be a target for legislation in other countries."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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