Judge embarrasses Biden over Saudi crown prince’s immunity | Muhammad bin Salman

An American judge has asked the biden administration to weigh in on whether Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, should receive sovereign immunity in a civil case brought against him in the US by Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist who was killed by Saudi agents in 2018.

District Court Judge John Bates gave the US government until August 1 to declare its interests in the civil case or notify the court that it has no opinion on the matter.

The administration’s decision could have a profound effect on the civil case and comes as Joe Biden faces criticism for abandoning a campaign promise to turn Saudi Arabia in an “outcast”.

The US president will meet the heir apparent to the Saudi throne later this month when he makes his first trip to Riyadh since entering the White House.

The civil complaint against Prince Mohammed, which was filed by Cengiz in Washington DC federal district court in October 2020, alleges that he and other Saudi officials acted in a “conspiracy and with premeditation” when Saudi agents kidnapped, tied up They drugged and tortured. and killed Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

Khashoggi, a former Saudi member who had fled the kingdom and was residing in Virginia, was a vocal critic of the young crown prince and was actively seeking to counter Saudi propaganda online at the time he was assassinated.

After years of inaction against Prince Mohammed by Donald Trump, who was president when Khashoggi was killed, the Biden administration moved to release an unclassified US intelligence report in 2021, shortly after Biden entered the White House. , which concluded that Prince Mohammed was likely ordered the murder of Khashoggi.

At the time the report was released, the Saudi Foreign Ministry said the kingdom’s government “categorically rejects what is stated in the report provided to Congress.”

While Saudi Arabia has said it has carried out a trial against the squad responsible for the gruesome murder, the proceedings have been widely condemned as a sham, and some of the team’s most senior members have been spotted at a state security compound in Riyadh.

Other possible avenues of justice have been blocked for political reasons. In March, a Turkish prosecutor ended a long trial in absentia against Khashoggi’s killers, in a move that was seen as part of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s attempts to improve relations with Prince Mohammed.

The Saudi prince has taken responsibility for the assassination on behalf of the Saudi government, but has denied any personal involvement in planning the assassination.

For supporters of Cengiz, who has been an outspoken advocate for justice for Khashoggi’s murder, any move by the US government to call for the crown prince to be granted sovereign immunity in the case would represent a betrayal of promise. of Biden to hold Saudi Arabia responsible.

“It would be absurd and unprecedented for the administration to protect him. It would be the final nail in the coffin for attempts to hold Khashoggi’s killers accountable,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, director of research at Dawn, a nonprofit organization promoting democracy in the Middle East that was founded by Khashoggi and co. -plaintiff in the case against the crown prince.

Judge Bates said in an order issued Friday that he would hold a hearing on August 31 after motions to dismiss the civil case by Prince Mohammed and others.

The motions to dismiss the civil case are based on claims by Prince Mohammed’s lawyers that the DC court lacks jurisdiction over the crown prince.

“In the opinion of the court, some of the grounds for dismissal put forward by the defendants could implicate the interests of the United States; moreover, the court’s resolution of defendants’ motions could be aided by knowledge of the views of the United States,” Bates said.

The judge said he was specifically inviting the US government to submit a statement of interest regarding the applicability of the so-called act of state doctrine, which states that the US must refrain from examining the actions of another government. foreigner in their courts; the interaction of that doctrine with a 1991 law that gives Americans and non-citizens the right to file lawsuits in the US for torture and extrajudicial killings committed in foreign countries; the applicability of the immunity of the head of state in this case; and the US view of whether Saudi Arabia’s sovereign interests could be affected if the case proceeded.

Agnès Callamard, director of Amnesty International, which investigates Khashoggi’s murder in her previous role as UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, said it was “laughable” that Prince Mohammed, whom she called “almost sovereign”, could benefit from the head of state. state immunity after the US itself had publicly concluded that it would most likely approve the operation to kill Khashoggi.

Noting that Prince Mohammed was not a king, he added: “MBS [as the crown prince is known] he is not the ruler of Saudi Arabia and the US should not recognize him as head of state. Doing so would give him an authority and legitimacy that he certainly doesn’t deserve and hopefully he will never receive.”

Cengiz could not be immediately reached for comment. The Saudi embassy in Washington was not available for comment.

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