WASHINGTON — A U.S. federal court said in a filing Tuesday that it dismissed a lawsuit against Saudi Arabia’s crown prince over the murder of a Saudi columnist who lived in Virginia after the State Department determined the prince has immunity if head of state or government.
The lawsuit filed on behalf of Hatice Cengiz, the fiancé of columnist Jamal Khashoggi, named Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the most prominent defendant. Mr. Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents while visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 to retrieve documents for his upcoming wedding.
Last September, Prince Mohammed’s father, King Salman, appointed the prince prime minister of Saudi Arabia. The move formalized his role as ruler of the kingdom, although the king remains the head of state.
Some US officials and analysts said the king appeared to be making the decision to ensure the prince had immunity in the case. King Salman made the announcement six days before an October deadline set by the court for the US government to advise whether Prince Mohammed had immunity. Shortly after receiving his new title, the prince told the court he had immunity based on legal precedent.
The State Department asked the court for a stay to make a legal decision, then submitted a statement to the Justice Department on November 17 stating that Prince Mohammed “should be immune while in office”.
The letter said the State Department took no position on the trial itself and reiterated “its unequivocal condemnation of the heinous murder” of Mr Khashoggi. Legal scholars at the time said the finding was in line with precedent.
In the 25-page dossier on Tuesday, the court said: “Despite the court’s unease, with both the circumstances of Bin Salman’s nomination and the credible allegations of his involvement in Khashoggi’s murder, the United States has informed the court that he is immune, and bin Salman is therefore ‘entitled to immunity as head of state…while he remains in office’.”
“Accordingly,” the court added, “the claims against bin Salman will be rejected on the basis of the immunity of the head of state.”
The court also dismissed the cases against Saud al-Qahtani and Ahmed al-Assiri, senior Saudi officials at the time of the assassination who were named as defendants in the lawsuit, because the plaintiffs had not sufficiently established that the court should have jurisdiction over the matter. matter.
Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, an advocacy group that filed the lawsuit on behalf of Ms Cengiz, wrote on Twitter that the court’s decision was “sad news for accountability”. She said the group was in consultation with lawyers about next steps and that “our fight for justice continues”.
Mr. Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident who wrote columns in The Washington Post criticizing the prince and the kingdom’s government, was strangled by Saudi agents and then dismembered. During the 2020 presidential campaign, President Biden vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” for the killings and other human rights violations. As one of his first foreign policy actions in office, Mr. Biden authorized the publication of a US intelligence report stating that Prince Mohammed had approved the assassination.
Mr Biden has kept his distance from the kingdom and criticized its human rights record, but this summer bowed to suggestions from top national security officials that he should try to mend relations with Prince Mohammed. He reluctantly visited the kingdom in July and exchanged a fist with the prince, drawing widespread condemnation from leading democratic lawmakers and human rights defenders.
In October, the prince led OPEC Plus, a cartel of oil-producing countries, by announcing a sharp production cut, enraging Mr Biden and sparking another rift in US-Saudi relations. Mr Biden accused the prince of siding with Russia, which relies on high oil prices to support its spending during its war against Ukraine.
Top Biden aides believed they reached a secret agreement with Saudi officials in May to increase oil production through the end of this year, though officials in Riyadh have denied making such promises.