Washington (AFP) - The US Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a case pitting the Arab Bank against victims of militant attacks that were allegedly enabled by the financial institution.
At issue is whether the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a law that gives American courts jurisdiction in civil lawsuits filed by foreign nationals over acts violating international law or US treaties, can be applied to the bank, and corporations in general.
Some 6,000 plaintiffs who were victims of attacks in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza claim the bank violated international law and by allowing the transfer of money used to fund the violence to accounts held by leaders of Hamas, which the US considers a terrorist group.
Paul Clement, the Arab Bank's attorney, meanwhile cast the institution as a "cornerstone of the Jordanian economy," while the US government has called it a constructive partner in fighting money laundering and armed violence.
The ATS was adopted in 1789 following an altercation some five years earlier in which a French diplomat was assaulted by a French national in the US.
The French government complained that international law on the protection of diplomats had been violated and demanded that the matter be dealt with by the US judiciary.
The ATS permits a US legal remedy in such cases.
The statute was largely dormant for nearly 200 years before reemerging onto the legal scene, and has since been used to bring civil cases against those involved in human rights violations.
But Chief Justice John Roberts on Wednesday raised concerns about potential "foreign entanglements" that could arise by allowing the suit against the Arab Bank to go forward.
"We passed this statute to avoid foreign entanglements because we wanted to provide a forum for someone like the French ambassador in the Longchamps affair," Roberts said, referring to the incident that led to the law's enaction.
"But I'm wondering if extending it to corporate liability is, in fact, going to have the same problematic result of increasing our entanglements, as it obviously has here with respect to the government of Jordan," he said.