A US judge has asked the Biden government to consider whether Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, has sovereign immunity in a civil case brought against him in the US by Hatice Cengiz, Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancé should be granted journalist 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 to tell the court that it has no opinion on the matter.
The government’s decision could have profound implications for the civil process and comes at a time when Joe Biden is being criticized for abandoning a campaign promise to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah”.
The US President will meet the Saudi heir to the throne later this month when he makes his first trip to Riyadh since entering the White House.
The civil lawsuit against Prince Mohammed, filed by Cengiz in Washington DC’s Federal District Court in October 2020, alleges that he and other Saudi officials acted in a “conspiracy and with intent” to kidnap, tie up, drug and torture Saudi agents and killed Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
Khashoggi, a former Saudi insider who fled the kingdom and lives in Virginia, was a vocal critic of the young crown prince and actively sought to counter Saudi online propaganda at the time of his assassination.
After years of inaction against Prince Mohammed by Donald Trump, who was President when Khashoggi was killed, prompted the Biden administration to release an unclassified US intelligence report in 2021, shortly after Biden entered the White House, which concluded came that Prince Mohammed had probably ordered the assassination of Khashoggi.
At the time of the report’s release, the Saudi Foreign Ministry said the kingdom’s government “categorically rejects what is said in the report submitted to Congress”.
While Saudi Arabia said it held a trial for the hit squad responsible for the gruesome murder, the trial was widely condemned as fraud and some of the team’s most senior members were spotted at a state security compound in Riyadh.
Other possible avenues of justice have been blocked for political reasons. A Turkish prosecutor in March ended a long-running absentee trial of Khashoggi’s killer, a move seen as part of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s attempts to mend ties with Prince Mohammed.
The Saudi prince has claimed responsibility for the assassination on behalf of the Saudi government but has denied any personal involvement in the planning of the assassination.
For supporters of Cengiz, who has been campaigning for justice for Khashoggi’s murder, any move by the US government to demand sovereign immunity from the crown prince in the case would be a betrayal of Biden’s promise to hold Saudi Arabia accountable .
“It would be absurd and unprecedented for the government to protect him. It would be the last nail in the coffin for attempts to bring Khashoggi’s killers to justice,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, the research director of Dawn, a nonprofit organization that promotes democracy in the Middle East and was founded by Khashoggi and a joint plaintiff on the case against him crown prince.
Judge Bates said in an order released on Friday that he would hold a hearing on August 31 after Prince Mohammed and others requested that the civil case be dismissed.
The motions to dismiss the civil case follow claims by Prince Mohammed’s lawyers that the DC court does not have jurisdiction over the crown prince.
“In the Court’s view, some of the grounds for termination put forward by the defendants may imply the interests of the United States; In addition, knowing the views of the United States could assist the court’s decision on the defendants’ motions,” Bates said.
The judge said he specifically invites the US government to submit an expression of interest regarding the applicability of the so-called act of state doctrine, which says the US should refrain from investigating the actions of another foreign government in its courts ; the interaction of this doctrine with a 1991 law giving Americans and non-citizens the right to seek legal claims in the US for torture and extrajudicial killings committed abroad; 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 harmed if the case continued.
Agnès Callamard, the head of Amnesty International, which investigated Khashoggi’s murder in her previous role as the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, said it was “ridiculous” that Prince Mohammed, whom she described as “almost sovereign”, was killed by the Leiter could benefit from state immunity after the US itself publicly concluded that he most likely authorized the operation to kill Khashoggi.
Noting that Prince Mohammed was not a king, she added: “MBS [as the crown prince is known] is not the ruler of Saudi Arabia and the US should not recognize him as head of state. This would give him an authority and legitimacy that he certainly doesn’t deserve and hopefully never gets.”
Cengiz could not be immediately reached for comment. The Saudi embassy in Washington could not be reached for comment.