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Saudi Arabia: US court puts pressure on Biden over immunity for MBS in civil case

Judge's call to clarify Mohammed bin Salman's status comes as Biden faces criticism for ditching promise to turn Saudi Arabia into ‘pariah’ state
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chairing the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh on 14 December 2021 (AFP)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chairing the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh on 14 December 2021 (AFP)

A US judge has asked the Biden administration for its view on whether Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) should be granted sovereign immunity in a civil case brought against him in the US by Hatice Cengiz, the fiancee of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post and Middle East Eye journalist murdered by Saudi agents in Istanbul 2018.

John Bates, a district court judge, gave the US government until 1 August to declare its interests in the case or else inform the court notice that it has no view on the matter, according to a report in the Guardian newspaper.

The administration’s decision could have a major impact on the civil case and comes as President Biden is facing criticism for abandoning a campaign promise to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah” state over the killing of Khashoggi.

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

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved Khashoggi murder, US report says
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The civil complaint against MBS, filed by Cengiz in the federal district court of Washington DC in October 2020, alleges that he and other Saudi officials acted in a “conspiracy and with premeditation” when Saudi agents kidnapped, tortured and killed Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

Khashoggi, a former Saudi insider who had fled the kingdom and was a resident of Virginia, was a vocal critic of MBS and seeking to counter Saudi online propaganda at the time when he was murdered.

After years of inaction against MBS 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 became president, that concluded MBS was likely to have ordered the murder of Khashoggi.

"We assess that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi," the report said.

"We base this assessment on the crown prince's control of decision-making in the kingdom since 2017, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Mohammed bin Salman's protective detail in the operation, and the crown prince's support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi," the US intelligence document said.

The US intelligence assessment added that MBS's aides could not have killed the journalist without the crown prince's blessings.

"At the time of the Khashoggi murder, the crown prince probably fostered an environment in which aides were afraid that failure to complete assigned tasks might result in him firing or arresting them," it said. 

"This suggests that the aides were unlikely to question Mohammed bin Salman's orders or undertake sensitive actions without his consent."

Betrayal

At the time the report was released in February 2021, the Saudi foreign ministry said the kingdom’s government “categorically rejects what is stated in the report provided to Congress”.

While Saudi Arabia said it held a trial against the hit squad responsible for the gruesome murder, the proceeding was widely condemned as a sham.

At least three members of the hit squad convicted of murdering Khashoggi are reportedly residing and working "in seven-star accommodation" at a government-run security compound in Riyadh, rather than being detained in Saudi Arabia's notorious prisons.

'It would be unprecedented for the administration to protect him. It would be the final nail in the coffin for attempts to hold Khashoggi’s murderers accountable'

- Abdullah Alaoudh, Dawn

The convicted killers are believed to be staying in villas and buildings run by the kingdom's state security agency, where they are visited by family members, with caterers, gardeners and technicians frequently attending the compound. 

The Saudi prince has taken responsibility for the murder 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 Biden’s promise to hold Saudi Arabia accountable.

“It would be preposterous and unprecedented for the administration to protect him. It would be the final nail in the coffin for attempts to hold Khashoggi’s murderers accountable,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, research director of Dawn, a non-profit organisation that promotes democracy in the Middle East that was founded by Khashoggi and a co-plaintiff on the case against the crown prince.

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

'Laughable'

The motions to dismiss the civil case rest on claims by MBS’s lawyers that the DC court lacks jurisdiction over the crown prince.

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

Agnes Callamard, the head of Amnesty International, who investigated Khashoggi’s murder in her previous role as UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, said it was “laughable” that MBS, whom she called “an almost-sovereign”, could benefit from head-of-state immunity after the US itself had concluded publicly that he most likely approved the operation to kill Khashoggi.

Noting that MBS was not king, she added: “MBS is not the ruler of Saudi Arabia and the US should not recognise him as head of state. Doing so would grant him an authority and legitimacy he certainly does not deserve and hopefully will never receive.”