Judge puts pressure on Biden over Saudi crown prince's immunity in US civil lawsuit

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (AP file photo)

A US judge has ordered the Biden administration to decide whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should be granted immunity in a civil lawsuit filed against him in the United States by Hatice Cengiz, the fiancee of slain dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

US District Judge John Bates has given the administration of President Joe Biden until August 1 to declare whether bin Salman, whom US intelligence has held responsible for Khashoggi’s murder, should be immune from the civil case or give the court notice that it has no view on the matter.

The lawsuit was filed in 2020 by Cengiz and Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a human rights organization Khashoggi founded before his death, in the federal district court of Washington DC.

It alleges that Khashoggi, a US resident and Washington Post columnist, was tortured, murdered and dismembered on the orders of bin Salman, known for his initials MBS.

The crown prince and two of the co-defendants have filed motions to dismiss Cengiz’s lawsuit, contending that the court lacks jurisdiction in the case.

Bin Salman’s lawyers have argued that he enjoys sovereign immunity in civil claims in the United States. “[MBS] has immunity not only from his immediate familial relationship to the King, but also from his own ‘high-ranking office,’” they said in their motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

The federal judge’s order comes just before President Biden is scheduled to make his first trip to Riyadh as president later this month, where he is expected to meet the crown prince. Biden is facing criticism for abandoning a campaign promise to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah” state over Khashoggi’s murder.

After two years of inaction by Donald Trump, who was president when Khashoggi was murdered, the Biden administration released an unclassified US intelligence report last year that concluded the order to kill Khashoggi likely came directly from the crown prince himself.

"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," it added.

The US intelligence assessment pointed out that bin Salman’s aides could not have murdered Khashoggi without the crown prince's blessings.

The CIA concluded in 2018 that MBS had ordered the killing of Khashoggi, contradicting Saudi Arabia’s insistence that the crown prince had no prior knowledge of the plot.

Saudi officials have blamed “rogue agents” for the journalist’s death.

Khashoggi was lured into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 to obtain documents he needed to marry Cengiz. He was killed and dismembered in the consulate and his remains were never found.

In the months before his death, Khashoggi had turned into a vocal critic of MBS, the de-facto leader of Saudi Arabia who has overseen a harsh crackdown on rivals and dissidents.


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