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US federal judge dismisses lawsuit against Saudi prince in Khashoggi killing

Court heeds government motion to shield Mohammed bin Salman from the suit despite ‘credible allegations of his involvement’ in gruesome 2018 murder

File: In this photo released by the Saudi Royal Palace, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, welcomes US President Joe Biden to Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP, File)
File: In this photo released by the Saudi Royal Palace, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, welcomes US President Joe Biden to Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP, File)

WASHINGTON — A US federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the killing of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, bowing to the Biden administration’s insistence that the prince was legally immune in the case.

District of Columbia US District Judge John D. Bates heeded the US government’s motion to shield Prince Mohammed from the lawsuit despite what Bates called “credible allegations of his involvement in Khashoggi’s murder.”

Bates said the civil suit filed by Khashoggi’s widow Hatice Cengiz and his activist group DAWN made a “strong” and “meritorious” argument that Prince Mohammed was behind the murder. But he ruled that he had no power to reject the US government’s official stance, submitted in a formal statement to the court on November 17, that the prince had immunity as a foreign leader.

Even if the prince was named prime minister just weeks ago, the US government’s 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,” Bates said.

A team of Saudi officials killed Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post, had written critically of the harsh ways of Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.

The US intelligence community concluded the Saudi crown prince ordered the operation against Khashoggi. The killing opened a rift between the Biden administration and Saudi Arabia that the administration has tried in recent months to close, as the US unsuccessfully urged the kingdom to undo oil production cuts in a global market racked by the Ukraine war.

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks during a press conference in Manama, Bahrain on December 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File)

Khashoggi had entered the Saudi consulate to obtain documents needed for his upcoming marriage. His fiancee, Cengiz, who had waited unknowingly outside the consulate as he was killed, and a rights group founded by Khashoggi before he died brought the lawsuit. The lawsuit also named two top aides of the prince as accomplices.

The Biden administration, invited but not ordered by the judge to offer an opinion on the matter, declared last month that Prince Mohammed’s standing as Saudi Arabia’s prime minister gave him sovereign immunity from the US lawsuit.

Saudi Arabia’s king, Salman, had named Prince Mohammed, his son, as prime minister weeks earlier. It was a temporary exemption from the kingdom’s governing code, which makes the king prime minister.

In this photo taken on October 10, 2018, a demonstrator dressed as Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (C) with blood on his hands protests with others outside the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC, demanding justice for missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (Jim WATSON/AFP)

Khashoggi’s fiancee and his rights group argued the move was a maneuver to shield the prince from the US court.

Bates expressed “uneasiness” with the circumstances of Prince Mohammed’s new title, and wrote in Tuesday’s order that “there is a strong argument that plaintiffs’ claims against bin Salman and the other defendants are meritorious.”

But the government’s finding that Prince Mohammed was immune left him no choice but to dismiss the prince as a plaintiff, the judge wrote. He also dismissed the two other Saudi plaintiffs, saying the US court lacked jurisdiction over them.

The Biden administration argued longstanding legal precedent on immunity for heads of government from other nations’ courts, in some circumstances, demanded that the prince be shielded as prime minister, regardless of the prince only recently obtaining the title.

The Biden administration already had spared Prince Mohammed from government penalties in the case, again citing sovereign immunity. Rights groups and Saudi exiles argued that sparing Prince Mohammed from accountability in Khashoggi’s killing would give the crown prince and other authoritarian rulers around the world a green light for future abuses.

In this file photo Hatice Cengiz, the fiancee of the late Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, delivers a prerecorded message during a remembrance ceremony for her fiancee in Washington, DC, on November 2, 2018. (Jim WATSON / AFP)

“Today is a dark day for victims of transnational repression,” said Khalid Aljabri, a US-based doctor and son of a former Saudi intelligence official.

Biden “has put dissidents at greater risk while confirming to dictators that his human rights policy is nothing but hot air,” he added.

A Saudi court in 2020 jailed eight people for between seven and 20 years over the killing.

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