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Deadline Nears for US on Seized Afghan Funds Sought By 9/11 Victims 


FILE - Smoke rises from the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center after hijacked planes crashed into them, in New York City, Sept. 11, 2001

Freeze it indefinitely, return it to Afghanistan or give it to 9/11 victims’ families? The Biden administration has until February 11 to tell a U.S. court what it thinks should happen to $7 billion of Afghan government funds currently frozen at the New York Federal Reserve.

Judges twice extended deadlines this year to give the government more time to sort out the legal logistics in the case, but for Andrew Maloney, a lawyer representing about 150 relatives of the 9/11 victims, the fate of the funds should have been decided “yesterday.”

“We'd like it to be done immediately,” Maloney told VOA. “We think it should be immediately put into an account that allows the court to make sure it is distributed evenly and fairly … to families who lost someone on 9/11.”

Others say the funds belong to the Afghan people and should be released to help mitigate economic and humanitarian crises in the country.

“Victims of 9/11 obviously have a legitimate suffering that they're seeking to address here. We can't make that the only factor in the decision. That's a moral imperative, and it's a practical one as well,” said Stephen Carter, an independent expert who leads the Afghanistan work at the London-based rights group Global Witness.

People in Afghanistan have protested against the freeze, and the U.N. secretary-general has called for a release of the funds.

FILE - Afghan laborers work at a brick factory in Deh Sabz, on the outskirts of Kabul, Sept. 26, 2021. With Afghan assets frozen in the U.S. and the world reluctant to recognize the Taliban, the country's banking system has come to a halt.
FILE - Afghan laborers work at a brick factory in Deh Sabz, on the outskirts of Kabul, Sept. 26, 2021. With Afghan assets frozen in the U.S. and the world reluctant to recognize the Taliban, the country's banking system has come to a halt.

"The function of Afghanistan's central bank must be preserved and assisted, and a path identified for conditional release of Afghan foreign currency reserves," Antonio Guterres said on January 13.

Even a group of U.S. lawmakers has called on President Joe Biden for a gradual release of the funds.

A bargaining chip?

The $7 billion frozen at the New York Federal Reserve is a mixture of cash, gold, bonds and other investments that were made by Afghanistan’s central bank before the Taliban retook power, according to former Afghan officials. Additionally, close to $2 billion of Afghanistan’s financial assets, including private banks’ liquidities, is frozen in European institutions.

“The reserves are a complicated issue,” a spokesperson at the State Department told VOA when asked why the U.S. government has not made a decision about the frozen funds.

The lawsuits by 9/11 victims’ families are one reason the case is complicated. Another is that the U.S. government is trying to ensure the Taliban, its former enemy, will not benefit from the assets.

U.S. military and Taliban fighters fought for almost two decades in Afghanistan, killing thousands. Even before the final U.S. soldier left Afghanistan last August, the Taliban took charge in Kabul despite U.S. warnings not to seize power by force.

“I think these funds are going to be a bargaining chip in the relationship with the Taliban, which I’m sure the U.S. government won't give up very quickly or easily,” said Carter of Global Witness.

U.S. officials say they’re working in tandem with allies in denying the Taliban every financial incentive.

“We review these issues thoughtfully and in coordination with allies, partners and other countries where Afghan Central Bank reserves are located,” said the State Department spokesperson.

With more than $516 million in assistance pledged since August last year, the U.S. is now the largest humanitarian aid donor to Afghanistan. U.S. officials say they will continue helping the Afghan people and pressing the Taliban to form an inclusive government and respect women’s rights.

VOA Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine contributed to this report.

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