Judge asks Biden government whether Saudi Crown Prince MBS should be immune from civil lawsuits

Placeholder while article actions are loading

The Biden administration has until August 1 to say whether it believes 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 who was murdered in 2018. †

Cengiz and Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a human rights organization that Khashoggi founded before his death, filed a lawsuit in 2020 against the crown prince and two dozen co-defendants. The indictment alleges that Khashoggi was tortured, murdered and dismembered under 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, arguing that the court lacks both substantive and personal jurisdiction. The crown prince has previously denied ordering the murder of Khashoggi and Saudi officials have blamed “rogue agents” for the journalist’s death.

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

U.S. District Court Judge John Bates said in an order Friday that the U.S. government could file a declaration of interest on, among other things, “the applicability of heads of state immunity in this case.” The Biden administration can also state that it will not provide such a statement. If the US declares its interests, Mohammed and the other defendants have until August 16 to respond, Bates ruled.

Mohammed’s lawyers have argued that the Crown Prince enjoys sovereign immunity in the US from civil claims. Muhammad’s father, King Salman, is the sovereign 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 direct family relationship with the king, but also from his own ‘high office’,” Mohammed’s lawyers argued in a motion to drop the lawsuit filed last year. Attorneys for Cengiz and DAWN have contradicted that courts have previously dismissed claims that “de facto” leadership, by virtue of being crown prince, confers immunity.

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

“It would be a mistake for both a matter of law and policy to go to court to grant MBS immunity, effectively ensuring impunity for this grotesque crime,” Sarah Leah Whitson, DAWN’s executive director, said in a text message. message.

The federal judge’s order comes just before President Biden will travel to Saudi Arabia for the first time in his presidency later this month, a journey that has made even some Democrats uneasy and has led to accusations that Biden has failed to fulfill his promise to Saudi Arabia. an “outcast” after Khashoggi’s murder.

On October 2, 2018, Saudi agents murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. What was done after that? (Video: Joyce Lee, Thomas LeGro, Dalton Bennett, John Parks/The Washington Post)

The Saudi embassy praised the upcoming visit as one that would “strengthen the historic and strategic partnership between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States of America as both countries strive to deepen and strengthen existing areas of cooperation and lay the foundation for the future of this strategic partnership.”

Khashoggi was murdered on October 2, 2018 after visiting 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 columns for The Washington Post in which he sharply criticized the crown prince, who effectively rules Saudi Arabia and has cracked down on rivals and dissidents.

The journalist’s death and mutilation was first revealed by the Turkish government. The assassination sparked a wave of international revulsion and calls for the Saudi leadership to be banned.

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

Turkey’s adjournment of the trial in April coincided with an attempt by the Erdogan government to restore relations with the kingdom severed after Khashoggi’s assassination.

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

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

Leave a Comment