A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit against Saudi Arabia’s crown prince after the Biden administration recommended he be granted immunity in the case brought against him by the fiancée of murdered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Judge John Bates said in an opinion that despite his “uneasiness,” the US government told the DC District Court that Prince Mohammed bin Salman is immune since he also holds the title of prime minister and so he is “entitled to head of state immunity.”
That unease was not only due to the prince’s involvement in Khashoggi’s murder, the judge wrote, but also the timing of his appointment as prime minister of Saudi Arabia. Bin Salman, known as MBS, was only made prime minister – and therefore the technical head of the government – in late September in what observers saw as a ploy to secure head of government immunity in the lawsuit brought by Hatice Cengiz and Khashoggi’s advocacy group DAWN.
Bates noted the “suspicious timing” of the prince’s appointment and the plaintiffs’ argument that until now, only the king was the country’s prime minister.
“A contextualized look at the [Saudi] Royal Order thus suggests that it was not motivated by a desire for bin Salman to be the head of government, but instead to shield him from potential liability in this case,” Bates wrote.
Bates issued a dismissal for two top MBS aides as well, Saud al-Qahtani and Ahmed al-Assiri, on jurisdictional grounds. The Treasury Department said last year that Assiri, then the deputy head of Saudi intelligence, “was the ringleader of the operation and coordinated with Saud al-Qahtani to organize and dispatch the 15-man team to murder and dismember Khashoggi.”
In addition to those three Saudi officials, there were 26 other defendants – but those other defendants have not entered an appearance yet in the case.
When the State Department suggested that MBS be granted immunity last month, they called Khashoggi’s grisly killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul “heinous” but argued MBS should be granted immunity due to the “unbroken practice” of granting it to foreign heads of government.
“The United States has consistently, and across administrations, applied these principles to heads of state, heads of government and foreign ministers while they are in office,” State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters. “This is an unbroken practice, and it is also something that we expect others to affront to the United States as well.”
Had the administration not made that recommendation, Bates wrote Tuesday, the court would have considered the arguments that the case against MBS should not be dismissed. Instead, going against the will of the administration would “unduly interfere” with their diplomatic responsibilities.
In response to the judge’s dismissal, the executive director of DAWN tweeted that it is “sad news for accountability.”
“We are consulting w our lawyers on next steps,” Sarah Leah Whitson wrote. “Our struggle for justice continues.”