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Saudi crown prince immune to trial over Khashoggi murder, US says

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The Biden administration has determined that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom the CIA holds responsible for the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi, is immune from a civil suit filed in the United States. brought by Khashoggi’s fiancee and a human rights activist. organization he founded.

Responding to an invitation from U.S. District Court Judge John Bates to file a statement of interest in the case, the government said in a court statement late Thursday that because he is the “incumbent head of government” of Saudi Arabia, is “immune to this suit” under international law.

In an accompanying letter, Richard C. Visek, acting legal adviser to the State Department, said the Department “takes no position on the merits of the current lawsuit and reiterates its unequivocal condemnation of the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”

Relations between the government and the kingdom, already frayed by US criticism of Saudi human rights abuses, deteriorated in recent months as President Biden failed to persuade Riyadh not to cut oil production as energy prices in the United States and the rest of the world rose sharply.

The government suggested its hands were tied by international law that prohibits courts in one country from taking action against another country’s head of state “while in office”. Mohammed’s father, King Salman, appointed him prime minister in September.

The application and Visek’s letter directing the Justice Department to submit the state’s conclusions to the court also stated that the constitution gives the executive branch exclusive authority to make foreign policy decisions .

Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz – who waited outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul as Khashoggi went inside to obtain documents needed for their marriage – and Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) sought unspecified punitive and compensatory damages under the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991. Khashoggi was killed inside the diplomatic mission by Saudi agents, who dismembered his body. His remains have never been found.

Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of DAWN, said the government’s decision “not only undermines the sole attempt at judicial accountability for Khashoggi’s murder; it indicates that our government will ensure impunity for a tyrant like MBS…heinous as his crimes are, and will further encourage him. Muhammad is commonly known by his initials, MBS.

Saudi Arabia condemned some of its officials for the killing, while denying Muhammad had any knowledge of their activities.

But the CIA came to the conclusion in a classified review just months after the assassination that Mohammed “approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill the Saudi journalist” because he was seen as a dissident whose activities undermined the monarchy. undermined.

Khashoggi wrote columns for The Washington Post and other media criticizing the crown prince, who, as de facto ruler, exerted harsh repression against rivals and dissidents even before his father appointed him prime minister.

President Donald Trump at the time refused to release the report, although its contents were widely leaked. Biden ordered the declassification and release weeks after taking office last year.

Read the intelligence report implicating Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi

Judge Bates’ invitation to the administration came less than two weeks before Biden traveled to Saudi Arabia for the first time during his presidency in July. That trip sparked allegations that the president reversed his campaign promise to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over Khashoggi’s assassination.

Prior to the visit, the Saudis hailed it as one that would “strengthen the historic and strategic partnership between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States of America … and lay the foundations for the future.”

Biden returned with what he said was an agreement that OPEC Plus, the energy cartel of which the Saudis co-chair, would continue to increase oil production to offset international shortfalls largely caused by Ukraine-related sanctions against Russian exports. When the cartel later announced production cuts, Biden said there would be “consequences” for Riyadh.

Since then, however, the government has been looking for signs that the close, decades-long security relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia can be salvaged. An indication could be a Saudi decision to halt austerity or increase production next month, when oil sanctions against Russia, an OPEC Plus member, will be increased.

But the government had little choice in the lawsuit, according to John B. Bellinger III, who served as legal counsel to both the State Department and the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.

“I’m sure this was a difficult decision for the government, but international law recognizes that heads of state enjoy immunity from civil proceedings in the courts of other countries,” he said.

The U.S. government “has always maintained this,” even when the accused “have been charged with heinous offensives,” Bellinger said.

Both the Republican and Democratic administrations have consistently advocated immunity on behalf of dozens of foreign heads of state indicted in the United States for alleged torture, extrajudicial killings and other serious crimes, he said, adding that he serves as a legal adviser to the State Department. “I have applied for immunity on behalf of Pope Benedict, who was charged with failing to investigate sexual abuse by the clergy.”

Customary international law — a doctrine considered binding even if not written down — means that immunity from prosecution in foreign jurisdictions applies to serving heads of state and government, as well as foreign ministers. The government’s decision would probably have been much more difficult before Mohammed was appointed prime minister of Saudi Arabia less than two months ago, as he was not immune in his previous position as defense minister.

The immunity granted does not apply to some 20 other Saudi defendants named in the lawsuit.

Judicial deference to what is officially known as a government’s “Suggestion of Immunity” has been absolute in the past. “In no event has a court subjected an individual to a lawsuit after the executive has determined that the head of state or government is immune,” the filing said.

A State Department spokesman said the Biden administration has repeatedly expressed its “serious concern about the responsibility of Saudi agents for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”

It has “educated them publicly and at the highest levels of the Saudi government” while imposing “financial sanctions and visa restrictions” in connection with the killing, the spokesman said.

“This suggestion of immunity … says nothing about broader policies or the state of relations” between the two countries, the spokesman said. “This was purely a legal determination.”

Missy Ryan, Spencer S. Hsu and Kareem Fahim contributed to this report.

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