Judge asks US if Saudi crown prince should be immune from prosecution

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The Biden administration has until August 1 to say whether it thinks Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should be immune from a civil lawsuit brought against him in the United States by Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of Jamal Khashoggi. , a journalist murdered in 2018. .

Cengiz and Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a human rights organization founded by Khashoggi before his death, filed a lawsuit in 2020 against the crown prince and two dozen co-defendants. The lawsuit alleges that Khashoggi was tortured, murdered and dismembered at the direction of the crown prince, who is often referred to by his initials MBS.

The crown prince and two of the co-defendants have filed motions to dismiss Cengiz’s lawsuit, saying the court lacks subject matter and personal jurisdiction. The crown prince has previously denied ordering Khashoggi’s murder, and Saudi officials have blamed “rogue agents” for the journalist’s death.

The CIA concluded in 2018 that Mohammed ordered Khashoggi’s murder, contradicting Saudi Arabia’s insistence that the crown prince had no prior knowledge of the plot.

U.S. District Court Judge John Bates said in an order on Friday that the U.S. government may submit a statement of interest regarding, among other things, “the applicability of head of state immunity in this case.” . The Biden administration may also state that it will not submit such a statement. If the United States declares its interests, Mohammed and the other defendants will have until August 16 to respond, Bates said.

Lawyers for Mohammed have argued that in the United States, the crown prince enjoys sovereign immunity in civil suits. Mohammed’s father, King Salman, is the ruler of Saudi Arabia, although the crown prince is widely regarded as the day-to-day ruler of the kingdom.

The crown prince “has immunity not only from his immediate family relationship with the king, but also from his own ‘high-ranking office,'” Mohammed’s lawyers argued in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed last year. Lawyers for Cengiz and DAWN countered that courts had previously rejected claims that “de facto” leadership, as crown prince, confers immunity.

The State Department typically consults with other U.S. government agencies before issuing an immunity recommendation to the Justice Department, whose formal request is usually binding on a federal court. A decision can come quickly, like for a head of state, or take months or years, depending on the circumstances and the complexity of a case, according to legal analysts.

“It would be an error of both law and policy for the court to grant immunity to MBS, thereby ensuring impunity for this farcical crime,” DAWN executive director Sarah Leah Whitson said in a text message.

The federal judge’s order comes just before President Biden will travel to Saudi Arabia later this month for the first time in his presidency, a trip that has even made some Democrats uncomfortable and sparked accusations that Biden flip-flopped on his promise to make Saudi Arabia a ‘pariah’ after Khashoggi’s murder.

On October 2, 2018, Saudi agents killed Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. What was done next? (Video: Joyce Lee, Thomas LeGro, Dalton Bennett, John Parks/The Washington Post)

The Saudi Arabian Embassy presented the upcoming visit as one that “would strengthen the historical and strategic partnership between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States of America, as the two countries aim to deepen and strengthen the existing areas of cooperation and to lay the foundations for the future of this strategic partnership.

Khashoggi was killed on October 2, 2018 after going to the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents that would allow him to marry Cengiz. In the months leading up to that visit, he had written articles for the Washington Post that were sharply critical of the crown prince, who effectively rules Saudi Arabia and has carried out a harsh crackdown on rivals and dissidents.

The journalist’s death and maiming were first revealed by the Turkish government. The murder sparked a wave of international revulsion and calls to ostracize Saudi leaders.

A separate attempt to prosecute the murder of Khashoggi, Turkey, ended recently after the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ended the trial of alleged members of the Saudi team that killed the journalist at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. The suspects, all of whom were in Saudi Arabia, were being tried in absentia.

Turkey’s suspension of the trial in April coincided with an effort by Erdogan’s government to restore relations with the kingdom that were severed after Khashoggi’s murder.

“We will seek justice in the United States,” Cengiz said at the time, referring to the Turkish decision and his US trial.

Spencer S. Hsu and Nick Miroff contributed to this report.

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