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Bill to help terror victim suits advances

Sen. Charles Schumer arrives for a briefing by

Sen. Charles Schumer arrives for a briefing by military and intelligence officials for members of the U.S. Senate on the White House strategy to combat the Islamic State Sept. 11, 2014 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Credit: Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Call it the Chiquita fix.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Thursday, on a rare unanimous bipartisan vote, a bill that would allow survivors and victims' families to seek damages in U.S. courts from countries and groups that financially support terrorists.

But that happened only after the bill's sponsors, Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), offered an amendment to address opposition by corporations and Chiquita Brands International, which has spent $900,000 to lobby against it since 2012.

Whether the fix will work remains to be seen -- the bill has strong foes in the House.

Schumer said he drafted the bill at the urging of families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks who tried to sue foreign governments and groups for funding al-Qaida terrorists. U.S. courts held those entities had "sovereign immunity" that protected them from suits.

Schumer's bill, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, allows lawsuits over the deaths of Americans by terrorism by changing the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act and the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1991.

Chiquita and other companies opposed the bill. They feared they would become targets for suits seeking damages because in the past they paid off local terrorists to protect their foreign operations.

Chiquita, for example, admitted it paid $1.7 million to the Colombian terrorist group AUC from 1997 to 2004 to protect its business holdings in Colombia. It pleaded guilty and paid a $25 million fine in 2007 to settle a federal investigation. Records show the terrorists Chiquita paid attacked Colombian targets.

To allay those concerns, Schumer and Cornyn came up with a fix: the bill would make the right to sue effective only for Americans killed by terrorists on or after Sept. 11, 2001.

That, Schumer said, would effectively exempt Chiquita.

Schumer said the U.S. Chamber of Commerce does not oppose the amended bill. The chamber would not comment.

Chiquita did not return telephone messages.

The bill must be passed by year's end or it will have to be reintroduced next year.

"We will work to bring up [the bill] for full Senate consideration as early as next week, or as soon as possible after that," Schumer spokeswoman Meredith Kelly said.

Then it goes to the House.

"The strategy is for the Senate to pass their bill and that will hopefully strengthen our hand on the House side," said Kevin Fogarty, an aide to Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), the bill's House sponsor.

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