Judge puts Biden under fire over immunity for MBS
The US president faces criticism for abandoning his commitment to transform Saudi Arabia into a "pariah".
A US judge has requested the Biden administration to rule on whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should be granted sovereign immunity in a civil complaint launched in the US by Hatice Cengiz, Jamal Khashoggi's partner, the journalist who was murdered by Saudi operatives in 2018.
A district court judge, John Bates, gave the US government until August 1 to declare its interests in the civil action or notify the court that it has no opinion on the matter.
The administration's decision might have a significant impact on the civil lawsuit, and it comes as Joe Biden faces criticism for breaking a campaign promise to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah" state.
A "pariah" no more?
The US president will meet the Saudi heir apparent later this month when he makes his first trip to Riyadh since taking office.
#JoeBiden has long been championing punishing #SaudiArabia over the assassination of #Saudi journalist #JamalKhashoggi and #Riyadh's grave human rights violations, but it seems that the Kingdom's "pariah" status will have to wait, for the #US needs oil and energy. pic.twitter.com/SMsgIrX81z— Al Mayadeen English (@MayadeenEnglish) June 3, 2022
Cengiz filed a civil complaint against Prince Mohammed in the federal district court of Washington DC in October 2020, accusing him and other Saudi officials of acting in "conspiracy and with premeditation" when Saudi agents kidnapped, bound, drugged, tortured, and killed Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
Did Biden betray his promise?
For supporters of Khashoggi's partner, 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, the research director of Dawn, a non-profit that promotes democracy in the Middle East that was founded by Khashoggi and a co-plaintiff on the case against the crown prince.
In an order issued on Friday, Judge Bates stated that he will hold a hearing on August 31 following petitions to dismiss the civil action filed by Prince Mohammed and others. The requests to dismiss the civil action are based on MBS' lawyers' arguments that the DC court lacks jurisdiction over him.
“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.
Doctrine with a 1991 law
The judge stated that he was expressly encouraging the US government to submit a statement of interest about the applicability of the so-called act of state doctrine, which stipulates that the US should refrain from investigating the actions of another foreign government in its courts.
The doctrine, established by a 1991 law, allows Americans and non-citizens to bring legal claims in the United States for torture and extrajudicial killings committed in other countries; the applicability of head of state immunity in this case; and the United States' assessment of whether Saudi Arabia's sovereign interests would be jeopardized if the case were to proceed.
Amnesty International's Agnès Callamard, who investigated Khashoggi's murder in her previous role as UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, called it "laughable" that MBS, whom she called "an almost-sovereign," could benefit from the head of state immunity after the US had publicly concluded that he most likely approved the operation to kill Khashoggi.
Noting that he was not the Kingdom's head, 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. Doing so would grant him an authority and legitimacy he certainly does not deserve and hopefully will never receive.”
The Kingdom's critic murdered
At the time of his death, Khashoggi, a former Saudi insider who had fled the kingdom and was living in Virginia, was a critic of the young crown prince and was an active dissident in the face of MBS.
After years of delay 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 took office, concluding that MBS was likely to have ordered Khashoggi's murder.
The Saudi foreign ministry declared at the time of the study's release that the kingdom's leadership "categorically rejects what is mentioned in the report submitted to Congress."
While Saudi Arabia claimed to have held a trial against the hit squad responsible for the heinous murder, the proceedings were widely denounced as a hoax, and several of the team's most senior members have been spotted in a state security compound in Riyadh.
Other potential channels of justice have been obstructed due to political considerations. In March, a Turkish prosecutor concluded a long-running absentia trial against Khashoggi's killers, in a move regarded as part of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's efforts to restore relations with the Saudi Crown Prince.
MBS has accepted responsibility for the assassination on behalf of the Saudi government, but he has denied any personal involvement in its planning.