A US judge has asked the Biden administration to rule on whether Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, should enjoy sovereign immunity in a civil case brought against him in the United States by Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist killed by Saudi agents in 2018.
John Bates, a district court judge, gave the US government until August 1 to declare its interests in the civil case or notify the court that it had 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 make Saudi Arabia a “pariah”.
The US president is due to meet the heir to the Saudi throne later this month on 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 abducted, tied up, drugged, tortured and killed Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
Khashoggi, a former Saudi insider who had fled the kingdom and resided in Virginia, was an outspoken critic of the young crown prince and was actively seeking to counter Saudi propaganda online at the time he was killed.
After years of inaction against Prince Mohammed by Donald Trump, who was president when Khashoggi was killed, the Biden administration decided to release an unclassified US intelligence report in 2021, shortly after Biden entered. at the White House, which concluded that Prince Mohammed was likely to have ordered Khashoggi’s murder.
At the time of the report’s release, the Saudi Foreign Ministry said the kingdom’s government “categorically rejects what is stated in the report provided to Congress.”
While Saudi Arabia says it held a trial against the commando responsible for the grisly murder, the proceedings have been widely condemned as a sham, and some of the team’s most senior members have been spotted inside a security compound of the state in Riyadh.
Other possible avenues of justice have been blocked for political reasons. A Turkish prosecutor ended a long trial in absentia against Khashoggi’s killers in March, in a move seen as part of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s attempts to improve relations with Prince Mohammed.
The Saudi prince took responsibility for the murder on behalf of the Saudi government but denied any personal involvement in planning the assassination.
For supporters of Cengiz, who has been a strong advocate for justice for Khashoggi’s murder, any decision by the US government to call on the crown prince to be granted sovereign immunity in the case would represent a betrayal of the promise of Biden to hold Saudi Arabia accountable.
“It would be absurd and unprecedented for the administration to protect him. It would be the final nail in the coffin of attempts to hold Khashoggi’s killers accountable,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, research director of Dawn, a nonprofit that promotes democracy in the Middle East and was founded by Khashoggi and a co-plaintiff on the case against the Crown Prince.
Judge Bates said in an order released 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 hinge on claims by Prince Mohammed’s lawyers that the DC court does not have jurisdiction over the crown prince.
“In the opinion of the court, some of the grounds for dismissal advanced by the defendants could jeopardize the interests of the United States; moreover, the court’s resolution of defendants’ motions could be facilitated by knowing 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 should refrain from review the actions of another foreign government in its courts; the interplay of this doctrine with a 1991 law that gives Americans and non-citizens the right to file complaints in the United States for torture and extrajudicial executions committed in foreign countries; the applicability of head of state immunity in this case; and the United States’ view of whether Saudi Arabia’s sovereign interests could be compromised if the case were to proceed.
Agnes Callamard, the head of Amnesty International, which investigated Khashoggi’s murder in her previous role as UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, said it was “laughable” that Prince Mohammed, who she called a “quasi-sovereign” head of state immunity after the United States itself publicly concluded that it most likely approved the operation to kill Khashoggi.
Noting that Prince Mohammed was not king, she added: “MBS [as the crown prince is known] is not the ruler of Saudi Arabia and the United States should not recognize him as head of state. This would grant him authority and legitimacy that he certainly does not deserve and hopefully will never receive.
Cengiz could not immediately be reached for comment. The Saudi Embassy in Washington was unavailable for comment.