NORFOLK, Va. -- A father's emotional testimony over the loss of his son aboard the USS Cole opened a civil trial yesterday in which relatives of the 17 victims of the terrorist attack are trying to prove it could not have happened without Sudan's support.
The sailors' families are suing the African nation in US District Court in Norfolk, where the now-repaired Navy destroyer is based. The 2000 blast had ripped a hole in the side of the destroyer, nearly sinking it.
"Sudan's material support . . . including continuous flow of funding, money, weapons, logistical support, diplomatic passports, and religious blessing, was crucial in enabling the attack on the USS Cole," lawyers for the families said in court papers outlining their case.
Sudan sought unsuccessfully to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that too much time had passed between the bombing and the filing of the lawsuit in 2004. Lawyers representing the Sudanese government did not offer opening statements yesterday or question Seaman Cherone Louis Gunn's father.
"These 17 sailors were murdered," said Louge Gunn, who testified about how he had contemplated killing himself after his 22-year-old son's death.
Gunn, a grief counselor, said he was in a session with a couple who had lost their son when he first heard the Cole had been bombed. Later that day, one of his other sons called and screamed into the phone that Cherone had been killed.
"I dropped the phone. I went into a panic," Gunn testified. "I fell to the floor on my knees. It was the most devastating thing that had ever happened to me. I felt like somebody had put their hand in the inside of my body and pulled my skin out."
The families' lawyers intend to prove that Sudan has given haven to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network since 1991 -- long before Yemeni operatives blasted a 40-foot-hole in the side of the Cole in Yemen's port of Aden on Oct. 12, 2000.
They also hope to show:
That the operatives were trained at camps Sudan permitted Al Qaeda to operate within its borders.
Sudan's military provided Al Qaeda with at least four crates of weapons and explosives for terrorist activities in Yemen.
Bin Laden and Sudan's government owned businesses that provided cover for the procurement of explosives, weapons, and chemicals.
Sudan gave Al Qaeda diplomatic pouches to ship explosives and weapons internationally without being searched.
The plaintiffs contend Sudan's embassy in New York gave logistical assistance to the bombers of the World Trade Center in 1993, but court documents included no details of the allegation.
The United States has listed Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1993.
Andrew C. Hall, an attorney for the families, opened the trial with a video recreation of the attack and actual photographs of the damage.
Hall said he expects the trial to last two to three days, with testimony by six family members and one or two experts. Lawyers also will give the judge depositions by about 50 people, including R. James Woolsey, former CIA director under President Clinton.
The families are seeking $105 million in damages to be shared by 59 spouses, parents, and children of the bombing victims.
Potential damages could be reduced, though, to not more than $35 million. US District Judge Robert G. Doumar has said he is inclined to apply the Death on the High Seas Act, which permits compensation for economic losses but not for pain and suffering.
Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor who is not connected to the case, said it's important to give the families their day in court. But he wondered whether a victory for them ultimately will help stop terrorism.
"Maybe it will have a tonic effect on other nations and they can think twice" about harboring terrorists, Tobias said. "It's another leverage point. We have diplomacy, force and maybe the rule of another law."