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Daily News Egypt: US court dismisses Caterpillar case filed by Rachel Corrie and Palestinian families

By: Jonas Moffat

In September, a US Court of Appeals dismissed a case against Caterpillar, Inc., which alleged seven claims, including aiding and abetting war crimes, extrajudicial killing, wrongful death, and other serious human rights violations.

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) took the case on behalf of the family of Rachel Corrie and four Palestinian families.

Corrie, an American peace activist, was killed on March 16, 2003 by a D9 Caterpillar bulldozer when it ran over her twice while she was trying to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home. She was 23. The four Palestinian families are representing 17 family members who were either killed or injured by Caterpillar bulldozers.

In their decision, federal appeals judges claimed that they lacked jurisdiction to hear this case. Judges evoked the “political questions doctrine,” which they said would “require the federal judiciary to ask and answer questions that are committed by the Constitution to the political branches of the US government.”

Furthermore, the political questions doctrine, judges claim, would cause them to examine the role of the US government in financing the sale and purchases of Caterpillar bulldozers to the Israeli Defense Forces.

“We knew that ‘political questions’ might be a factor in the court’s decision,” Cindy Corrie told Daily News Egypt, “but we did not think that it would be applied in this way.”

Gwynne Skinner, one of the lawyers representing Corrie’s family, told Daily News Egypt that the judges calling on the “doctrine of political questions means that they cannot even look at any of the questions or evidence we are presenting, because of the ‘separation of powers’ in the government. They are saying that they ‘constitutionally’ can’t review the case.”

Cindy Corrie, Rachel’s mother, said, “In our view and in our lawyers’ view, there was not enough information at this early stage for the court to truly determine the level of involvement of the US government in the sales. Also, we and our lawyers believe that it has historically been the role of the courts to hear claims for injuries caused by human rights violations, especially where an American company has aided and abetted those violations.”

Skinner added, “This court is a good court because it is based on law and not politics. If the judges decided to hear this case it would not affect the political body’s support of Israel. However, those who blindly support Israel tend to be very vocal, and any decision by the court will most certainly create a firestorm around it.”

She added that the court is the only forum to hold Caterpillar accountable. “If the judges decide not to hear this case, there will be no relief or justice for the lives of Rachel Corrie or the thousands of Palestinian families affected, and this is a tragedy.”

CCR, the Corries, and the Palestinians families are not giving up with this court’s decision, however. A motion for rehearing was filed on Oct. 9. Whether the court will accept the motion, Skinner said, “is a waiting game.” If the court refuses, they could then appeal to the Supreme Court — a move Skinner doubts they will take.

Corrie added, “We believe the court did not have enough information to decide whether this case should be dismissed based on a political question. We have in the petition asked the court to order more discoveries in the case, wherein more information about how the bulldozers are sold and the level of involvement of the US government in actually approving the sales can be better ascertained.”

According to Attorney Skinner, the court relied on an affidavit filed in separate hearings that the Caterpillar bulldozers were paid for by the US government “without giving any chance to see if this was true. There is no bit of scrutiny being used here.”

Corrie added, “There is no evidence that the US government had a policy that these bulldozers were to be sold and used to demolish civilian homes — in violation of international humanitarian and human rights law.” Asked if the Corries believed the court acted in good faith, she responded, “We think the court acted in good faith, but we believe they ruled incorrectly and we hope that they will reconsider this decision and its potential impact.”

In Sept. 2007, an Israeli bulldozer killed 19-year-old Mahmoud Kayid Al Kfafi in the Gaza Strip. According to eyewitnesses, the Caterpillar bulldozer hit Al Kfafi in the head with its razor, killing him immediately. To escape the gunfire being shot from IDF tanks at stone throwers, Al Kfafi sought refuge behind an olive tree.

Doctors said the bulldozer broke his skull wide open and his brain was out of it.

Corrie said that they are currently active with this case as well, stating that “we are involved today with a day of action against Caterpillar, Inc. calling for them to end their role in this occupation and to cease their sales to the Israeli military of equipment repeatedly used to break international humanitarian law.”

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