US judge asks Biden if Saudi crown prince should have sovereign immunity in Khashoggi civil suit

John Bates, a US district court judge, has given the Biden administration until 1 August to indicate whether it has an interest in the Khashoggi civil case

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A US judge has asked the Biden administration to wade into the US civil court case brought against Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman by Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of the murdered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

John Bates, a US district court judge, has asked for the Biden administration government to indicate whether it has an interest in the case or deliver notice that it has no view on the matter by no later than 1 August, The Guardian reported.

In 2020, Ms Cengiz and Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), an NGO formed by deceased journalist Khashoggi before his death in 2018, filed a lawsuit against the crown prince, more commonly referred to as MBS, alongside two dozen co-defendants.

The suit alleges that Khashoggi, who had fled Saudi Arabia and was a resident of Virginia at the time of his death, was tortured, brutally murdered and dismembered inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul by Saudi agents, all under the direction of the crown prince.

At the time, Khashoggi had reportedly gone to the Saudi consulate in Turkey to pick up documents he required to marry his then-fiancée, who has remained a staunch and vocal critic – like her dead husband-to-be was when he was alive – of MBS and his government.

For his part, the crown prince has categorically denied being involved in the journalist’s assassination, stating that it was the fault of so-called “rogue agents” and has similarly dismissed the civil case brought against him, having filed two separate motions to have the case removed from the docket.

In those motions, lawyers representing MBS contend that the court lacks jurisdiction over the crown prince.

“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 the knowledge of the United States’ views,” Judge Bates said, according to The Washington Post.

Judge Bates’ request from the Biden administration comes at a time when the relationship between the Middle Eastern kingdom and Washington is at a potentially course-altering stage, as the US president is scheduled to arrive in Riyadh for the first time since assuming office to meet with the heir apparent later this month.

This late summer summit has been criticised by Ms Cengiz, who told CNN recently that it would be a significant loss for human rights defenders around the world.

“President Biden’s decision to meet MBS is horribly upsetting to me and supporters of freedom and justice everywhere,” Ms Cengiz said in a statement to CNN.

Mr Biden’s decision to meet with the crown prince is a sharp departure from the campaign he ran on in 2020 to earn the presidency, during which he committed to holding the Saudi Arabian government accountable for human rights abuses while famously vowing to make the oil-rich nation a “pariah”.

The president was initially lauded for delivering on those promises, as he placed sanctions on the middle eastern government, while simultaneously releasing a damning piece of unclassified US intelligence which confirmed that officials believed MBS was likely responsible for the outspoken journalist’s murder.

“Those involved in the abhorrent killing of Jamal Khashoggi must be held accountable. With this action, Treasury is sanctioning Saudi Arabia’s Rapid Intervention Force and a senior Saudi official who was directly involved in Jamal Khashoggi’s murder,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement issued in early 2021.

Those sanctions, however, stopped short of directly targeting the crown prince. And with the ongoing invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces continuing to drive up oil prices, and midterms fast-approaching with the president still weathering record-low approval ratings, it’s likely that the US president will, once again, avoid specifically taking a shot at the Saudi Arabian crown prince in order to preserve relations and so might decide to avoid weighing in on the US civil case.

This much is suspected by senior US officials, according to CNN, who reported earlier last month that the US president hopes to use the official trip to Riyadh as an opportunity to “reset” the two countries’ stale relationship.

“Both sides have decided that for the sake of achieving peace and stability in the Middle East, we need to move past it,” an unnamed senior US official told CNN in reference to Khashoggi’s killing, which would effectively mean bypassing punishing the crown prince over the US resident’s murder.

Biden is expected to meet with Prince Mohammed in Jeddah at the end of a four-day trip beginning on 13 July.

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