A US judge has dismissed a lawsuit against Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman that claimed he conspired to kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying the crown prince was entitled to sovereign immunity despite “credible allegations” that he was involved in the murder.
Judge John Bates, a US district court judge with a long history of presiding over cases involving national security, acknowledged “uneasiness” in making the decision, but said that his hands were in effect tied by the Biden administration’s recent recommendation that Prince Mohammed be given immunity.
The decision to dismiss the civil claim, which was brought by Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, and Dawn, a pro-democracy group founded by the murdered journalist, likely marks the end of efforts to hold the future Saudi king accountable for the 2018 murder.
The dismissal of the civil claim against Prince Mohammed and two of his close associates – Saud al-Qahtani and Ahmed al-Asiri – means the Saudi heir can now travel to the US and other jurisdictions freely. Although the case was not brought by US prosecutors with the power to arrest him, if it had been allowed to proceed, the case would have created a legal minefield for the crown prince and if he had been found guilty, could have put his financial interests in the US in jeopardy.
“One episode in our struggle for justice for Jamal may have concluded but the battle will never be over until all perpetrators including MBS are brought to justice,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, research director for Saudi Arabia at Dawn, a co-plaintiff in the case.
Saudi dissidents and critics of Prince Mohammed have previously expressed grave concerns about any possibility of the crown prince being granted immunity, saying any such decision would seal the aura of impunity around the 37-year-old prince, and could be seen as offering him a license to target other journalists and dissidents around the world.
Khashoggi’s brutal murder in 2018 created an international outcry. An investigation by Agnes Callamard, then the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, found that Khashoggi had been the victim of a “deliberate, premeditated execution” for which the state of Saudi Arabia was responsible under human rights law.
Using recordings of conversations from inside Saudi’s Istanbul consulate where he was murdered and dismembered with a bone saw, Callamard reported that Khashoggi had been confronted in his final moments by Saudi officials, including one who said: “We are coming to get you.”
In the minutes that followed, her report found, a struggle could be heard, and rustling plastic, suggesting the Washington Post columnist may have been suffocated using a plastic bag.
In an angry statement to the Guardian, Callamard, who is now director general of Amnesty International, listed multiple parties who she claimed had “contributed to the impunity for the state murder of Jamal Khashoggi”, from Saudi Arabia itself, to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, to Joe Biden.
“And I am not mentioning all the governments, and the heads of businesses, sporting and cultural events who courted, sold and bought from the state responsible for murdering Jamal Khashoggi. This is the reality of our world. Press freedom and human rights betrayed. Repeatedly. But still we stand. And still we fight. And we are not defeated. We know the truth,” she said.
Prince Mohammed has said he takes responsibility for the murder but has denied any personal involvement in approving the killing.
Judge Bates’s ruling comes years after then-candidate Biden promised that he would hold the Saudi crown prince accountable for the murder if he was elected president and suggested that Prince Mohammed ought to be treated as a “global pariah” for his alleged role in the killing.
Shortly after entering the White House, it appeared that Biden would follow through on the campaign promise.
His administration released an unclassified intelligence report that concluded that “MBS”, as he is known, had likely approved the killing. But no further sanctions against the crown prince or his vast business interests in the US followed. Last summer, Biden fist-bumped the crown prince ahead of a meeting in Jeddah that was seen as an attempt to rescue the relationship. Then, last month, the state department suggested that Prince Mohammed be granted immunity, citing a recent promotion of the crown prince to the role of prime minister.
Human rights defenders and Cengiz’s own lawyers said the promotion had been a ruse intended solely for the purpose of escaping accountability, an allegation that neither the Biden administration nor the court denied.
In his decision, Judge Bates stressed that US law and separation of powers, which forces the judiciary to show deference to executive branch opinions on foreign immunity, compelled him to agree with the Biden administration’s decision on the case, even though he seemed to acknowledge that the circumstances around Prince Mohammed’s sudden elevation to prime minister were “suspect”.
“The Executive Branch remains responsible for foreign affairs, including with Saudi Arabia, and a contrary decision on bin Salman’s immunity by this court would unduly interfere with those responsibilities all the same,” the judge wrote.