Judge asks Biden administration whether Saudi Crown Prince MBS should be granted immunity from civil suit

Judge asks Biden administration whether Saudi Crown Prince MBS should be granted immunity from civil suit
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The Biden administration has until August. 1 to say whether he thinks Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should be granted immunity from a civil lawsuit filed against him in the United States by Hatice Cengiz, the fiancee of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who was killed 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, killed 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 filed motions to dismiss Cengiz’s case, arguing that the court lacked both subject matter and personal jurisdiction. The crown prince has previously denied ordering Khashoggi’s murder, and Saudi authorities have blamed “rogue agents” for the journalist’s death.

The The CIA concluded in 2018 that Mohammed ordered Khashoggi’s assassination, 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 Friday that the U.S. government could file a declaration of interest regarding, among other things, “the applicability of head of state immunity in this case.” The Biden administration may also declare that it will not issue such a statement. If the US declares its interest, Mohammed and the other defendants will have until August. 16 to answer, Bates ruled.

Mohammed’s lawyers argue that in the US the crown prince enjoys sovereign immunity from civil suits. Mohammed’s father, King Salman, is the sovereign of Saudi Arabia, although the crown prince is widely regarded as the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler.

The crown prince “has immunity not only from his immediate family connection to the king, but also from his own ‘high office,'” Mohammed’s lawyers argued in a motion to dismiss the case filed last year. Lawyers for Cengiz and DAWN countered that courts have previously rejected claims that “de facto” leadership, by virtue of being crown prince, confers immunity.

The State Department usually consults with other US 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, such as for a head of state, or take months or years depending on the circumstances and complexity of the case, legal analysts say.

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

The federal judge’s order comes just before President Biden scheduled to travel to Saudi Arabia later this month for the first time in his presidency, a trip that made even some Democrats uneasy and that drew accusations against Biden does not keep his promise to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” after the assassination of Khashoggi.

On Oct. On February 2, 2018, Saudi agents killed Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. What has been done subsequently? (Video: Joyce Lee, Thomas Legro, Dalton Bennett, John Parks/The Washington Post)

The Saudi Embassy advertises 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 aim to deepen and strengthen existing areas of cooperation and lay the foundations for the future of this strategic partnership. ” “

Khashoggi was killed Oct. 2, 2018, after visiting the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents that would allow him to marry Genghis. In the months leading up to this visit, he wrote columns for The Washington Post that were sharply critical of the crown prince who effectively rules Saudi Arabia and has carried out brutal repression against rivals and dissidents.

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

A 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 that killed the journalist at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. The suspects, who were all in Saudi Arabia, were tried in absentia.

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

“We will seek justice in the United States,” Cengiz said at the time, referring to Turkey’s decision and its US lawsuit.

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

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