Saudi prince’s new title is key to fending off murder lawsuit

Saudi prince's new title is key to fending off murder lawsuit
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WASHINGTON (AP) — It came as a shock six weeks ago when Saudi Arabia’s aging King Salman named his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as prime minister. The laws of the kingdom designate the king as prime minister. King Salman had to declare a temporary exception to lend the title while at the same time making it clear that he retains key roles.

But that move reaped dividends on Thursday, when the Biden administration declared that Prince Mohammed’s position as prime minister shielded him from a US lawsuit for what the US intelligence community says was his role in the assassination of a US-based journalist. A judge will now decide whether Prince Mohammed has immunity.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby insisted on Friday that the government’s declaration of immunity for Saudi Arabia’s crown prince was purely a “legal determination” that “has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of the case in Yes”.

Many international law experts agreed with the administration, but only because of the king’s title push in late September for crown prince, ahead of a scheduled US decision.

“It would have been just as remarkable for the United States to deny MBS’s head of state immunity after his appointment as prime minister as it would have been for the United States to grant MBS’s head of state immunity prior to his appointment.” William S. Dodge, Professor, University of California-Davis School of Lawhe wrote, using the prince’s initials.

State Department spokesman Vedant Patel gave examples Friday of previous instances in which the United States recognized the immunity of heads of government or state: Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and India’s Narendra Modi, both on allegations of abuses of Rights.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Washington by the fiancee of slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi and by a DC-based human rights group he founded. It accuses the crown prince and about 20 aides, officials and others of plotting and carrying out Khashoggi’s assassination at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul.

The assassination, condemned by Biden at his 2019 campaign trial as a “total murder” that must have consequences for the Saudi rulers, is at the center of a rift between strategic partners the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Before and immediately after taking office, Biden promised to take a stand on Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, as part of a presidency that would be based on rights and values. But since then Biden has offered a fist bump and other conciliatory gestures in the hope, disappointed so far, of persuading the crown prince to pump more oil for world markets.

The Biden administration argues that Saudi Arabia is too important to the global economy and regional security to allow the United States to walk away from the decades-long partnership.

But rights advocates, some senior Democratic lawmakers and Khashoggi’s newspaper, The Washington Post, on Friday condemned the administration’s move.

“Jamal died again today,” Khashoggi’s fiancee Hatice Cengiz tweeted.

Fred Ryan, editor of the Post, called it a “calculated and cynical effort” to bend the law to protect Prince Mohammed. Khashoggi wrote columns for the Post that in his final months criticized abuses of the crown prince’s rights.

“By accepting this outline, President Biden is turning his back on the fundamental principles of free press and equality,” Ryan wrote.

Cengiz and Khashoggi’s rights group, Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN, had argued that the crown prince’s change of title in late September was nothing more than a ploy to escape US courts, with no legal standing or change of authority or duties.

Saudi Arabia has not publicly commented on the administration’s decision. Spokesmen for the Saudi Embassy and the Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Friday.

Saudi Arabia blames what it says were “rogue” officials for Khashoggi’s murder. He says that the prince did not play any role.

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, unlike a constitutional monarchy like the United Kingdom, where a prime minister rules rather than a king or queen.

“Pretty pathetic,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the head of Khashoggi’s rights group, said Friday of the title change.

“If anything, it showed how scared Mohammed bin Salman was and has been of our lawsuit and actual liability and actual discovery of his crimes,” Whitson said.

The Biden administration appeared to dismiss his group’s argument that Prince Mohammed’s recent title change was against existing Saudi Arabian law and should be ignored.

King Salman has continued to make appointments and preside over his council meetings since the title change.

But Prince Mohammed has for years been a key player and decision-maker in the kingdom, even representing the king abroad.

Some Western media had portrayed the temporary transfer of the title of prime minister as King Salman, who is over 80 years old, delegating the responsibility to Prince Mohammed, who is 37 years old.

A federal judge had given the US until Thursday to offer an opinion – or not – on the crown prince’s claim that his position protects him from US courts.

Rights advocates had hoped until the time of the filing of the application that the administration would remain silent, offering no opinion on Prince Mohammed’s immunity in any way.

Sovereign immunity, a concept rooted in international law, holds that states and their officials are protected from some legal proceedings in the courts of other foreign states.

Previous criminal and civil cases brought against foreign governments and leaders in which the US has not intervened have generally involved countries with which the US does not have diplomatic relations or does not recognize their heads of state or government as legitimate .

The cases brought against Iran and North Korea seeking damages for the deaths or injuries of US citizens are two prominent examples of instances where the executive branch has not stepped in with an opinion on sovereign immunity.

By contrast, the United States has full diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. The State Department stressed Thursday that honoring the principle of leaders of other governments helps ensure that courts in other countries do not seek to bring US presidents before them to answer lawsuits there.

Kirby, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said the US decision had “absolutely nothing” to do with “strained” relations between the US and Saudi Arabia over oil production cuts led by Saudi Arabia and others. affairs.

Biden has been “very, very vocal” about the “brutal and barbaric murder of Khashoggi,” Kirby said.

But some of Biden’s fellow Democrats in Congress expressed disappointment with the administration’s move.

“Is the Administration giving up its trust in the judgment of its own intelligence community?” Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, in a statement. “If Khashoggi’s friends and family are denied a path to accountability in the American judicial system, where in the world can they go?”

Whitson, the official for Khashoggi’s rights group, said the lawsuit would continue against the others named in the suit.


Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.

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