Saudi prince's immunity contested in Khashoggi fiancee's wrongful death suit

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the APEC Leaders' Informal Dialogue with Guests during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit 2022, in Bangkok, Thailand November 18, 2022. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha/Pool
  • Biden administration says immunity doctrine "well established"
  • Hearing set for Dec. 9

(Reuters) - The former fiancee of slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Tuesday urged a U.S. judge to allow her lawsuit to move forward against Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite an assertion from the Biden administration that he is immune to liability as a foreign head of state.

Khashoggi's ex-fiancee Hatice Cengiz sued Prince Mohammed and other Saudi officials in 2020 in Washington, D.C., federal district court over the murder of Khashoggi, killed and dismembered in October 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

U.S. intelligence has said it believes Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler for several years, ordered the operation that killed Khashoggi, who had criticized the prince's policies in Washington Post columns.

Prince Mohammed has acknowledged the murder happened under his "watch," but he has denied ordering the killing. Cengiz's wrongful death lawsuit, filed jointly with a human rights group that Khashoggi founded, seeks unspecified damages against Prince Mohammed and other defendants.

"The government contends that the court must blindly rubber-stamp its suggestion of immunity, without any analysis as to whether dismissal would comport with principles of customary international law," Jenner & Block partner Keith Harper, a lawyer for Cengiz, wrote in Tuesday's filing. "The government is wrong."

Michael Kellogg, an attorney for Prince Mohammed at the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Kellogg, Hansen, Todd, Figel & Frederick, on Wednesday declined to comment.

A spokesperson for the Saudi embassy in D.C. was not immediately reached for comment.

A U.S. State Department representative did not immediately reply to a message seeking comment.

U.S. District Judge James Bates will weigh Prince Mohammed's bid to dismiss the lawsuit at a hearing on Dec. 9.

Prince Mohammed's lawyers previously told the U.S. court that the Saudi Arabian leader, named prime minister in September by his elderly father King Salman, "is entitled to status-based immunity."

Their court filing pointed to other U.S. federal court cases in which judges found foreign heads of state were immune from liability.

Cengiz's lawyers argued that the naming of Prince Mohammed as prime minister, days before the U.S. announced its immunity statement, was a "deliberate attempt to manipulate this court's jurisdiction."

U.S. Justice Department lawyers said in a Nov. 17 filing in Cengiz's lawsuit that "the doctrine of head of state immunity is well established in customary international law."

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters that "the opinion that we provided does not in any way speak to the merits of the case or the status of the bilateral relationship."

The case is Cengiz v. Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, No. 1:20-cv-03009.

For plaintiffs: Keith Harper and Adam Unikowsky of Jenner & Block

For Mohammed bin Salman: Michael Kellogg of Kellogg, Hansen, Todd, Figel & Frederick

Read more:

U.S.-Saudi ties under review despite Khashoggi immunity ruling, Blinken says

Biden administration says Saudi prince has immunity in Khashoggi killing lawsuit

Saudi prince has immunity in Khashoggi killing lawsuit, say lawyers

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