President Joe Biden made a campaign promise to turn the nation of Saudi Arabia into a “pariah.” Now, he is being given the chance to follow through on that promise by a U.S. District Court Judge.
Judge John Bates has asked the Biden administration to decide whether the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, should be given sovereign immunity in a civil case against him.
The case is being brought in the United States by Hatice Cengiz, the fiancee of Jamal Khashoggi. He was the journalist who was killed by Saudi agents in 2018.
Judge Bates has given the Biden administration until August 1st to make the decision about its interests in the civil case. They can also give the court notice that they have no view of the case.
Whatever decision Biden makes will have a significant impact on the civil case. The president is now facing criticism that he is going to abandon his campaign promise regarding making Saudi Arabia a “pariah.”
Biden is planning to meet with the crown prince later this month when he makes his first trip to Riyadh since he entered the White House.
The case was brought against Prince Mohammed in the federal district court of Washington D.C. in October of 2020. It alleges that he, along with other Saudi officials acted in a “conspiracy and with premeditation.” Agents kidnapped, drugged, and killed Khashoggi while he was inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
Khashoggi was a former insider in Saudi Arabia, but had fled the kingdom and was living in Virginia. He was a vocal critic of the crown prince and was trying to reveal the propaganda in favor of him when he was killed.
When Biden became president, he released an unclassified U.S. intelligence report in 2021. It concluded that the crown prince was likely involved in ordering the murder of Khashoggi.
The Saudi foreign ministry responded by saying that its government “categorically rejects what is stated in the report provided to Congress.”
The Saudi government held a trial against the alleged hit squad and most people believed that it was nothing more than a sham. Some of the leaders of the squad have been seen in a state security compound in Riyadh.
There have been other cases seeking justice in this murder that have been bogged down in politics. A Turkish prosecutor in March ended his long case in absentia against the killers. Most believe that it ended due to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s desire to improve relations with the crown prince’s kingdom.
Cengiz has been outspoken in her pursuit of justice. She said that any move by the U.S. government to grant the crown prince sovereign immunity would be a betrayal of Biden’s promise to hold him accountable.
“It would be preposterous and unprecedented for the administration to protect him. It would be the final nail in the coffin for attempts to hold Khashoggi’s murderers accountable,” said Abdullah Alaoudh. He is the research director of Dawn, which is a non-profit that promotes democracy in the Middle East. It was founded by Khashoggi.
Lawyers for the prince have filed motions for dismissal because the D.C. court does not have jurisdiction over the crown prince.
“In the court’s view, some of the grounds for dismissal advanced by defendants might implicate the interests of the United States; moreover, the court’s resolution of defendants’ motions might be aided by knowledge of the United States’ views,” Bates said.
Biden will have to make the next move, and all eyes will be watching to see if he keeps his word.