Trump Mulling Immunity For Mohammed bin Salman, Because Is Murdering US Journalists Even A Crime?
Saudi Arabia, famed totalitarian absolute monarchy, is home to some of the worst human rights violations on earth. And Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aka MBS, is right at the center of a lot of them.
So, naturally, Donald Trump is a big fan.
On Oct. 2, 2018 (which we think was roughly 287 years ago), members of a Saudi "Tiger Squad" brutally murdered and then dismembered Washington Post journalist, US resident, and dissident-in-exile Jamal Khashoggi with a bonesaw, inside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul.
While one might hope that the US government would, you know, care about the brutal murder of a permanent US resident, Trump took another tack. Literally no one believes that MBS wasn't directly involved. But despite a recording of the murder, the findings of his own intelligence agencies that MBS ordered the hit, a UN report finding "credible evidence" that MBS was directly involved, the ridiculous, ever-changing official Saudi story of what happened, and details of how MBS's then-chief of security ran the murder via Skype, Trump has defended the crown prince and refused to see what's right in front of him. He even bragged to Bob Woodward about helping MBS get away with murder, telling the journalist, "I saved his ass."
And now, he might have found one last way to help Mohammed bin Bonesaw on his way out of office.
The Khashoggi assassination
MBS and a number of other Saudi officials have been named in at least three lawsuits currently pending in federal court.
First up is a suit filed by Hatice Cengiz (Khashoggi's fiancée) and Democracy for the Arab World Now (the human rights organization Khashoggi founded in the US).
Cengiz has sued MBS and more than two dozen other Saudis and Saudi government officials and alleges MBS and others in his circle murdered Khashoggi because they were worried about his vocal criticism of the Saudi government's human rights abuses and his advocacy work in the US.
Khashoggi was a journalist, Saudi dissident, Washington Post columnist, US green card holder, and human rights activist. And because of his prominence, outspoken criticism of the Saudi regime, and human rights work, the Saudi Arabian government decided he had to go. As Cengiz said when she filed the lawsuit, "A group of criminals thought Jamal's voice was too powerful, too threatening, and so they decided to silence him permanently."
Of course, murdering Khashoggi was not just a one-off; silencing dissent by any means necessary is kind of Saudi Arabia's thing. And that brings us to lawsuit number two.
Dr. Saad Aljabri
In 2017, Saudi Arabia tried to extradite Aljabri to get him back in the country. Interpol rejected the request, noting that it "observed ... reports of abuse and due process violations make the proceedings concerning corruption cases antithetical to a fair and transparent judicial process." It found that "the lack of judicial oversight and the direct involvement of MBS" made the Saudi case against Aljabri appear to be politically motivated and noted that the allegations against Aljabri relied heavily on MBS's "Supreme Anti-Corruption Committee," which allegedly "operates as part of a political strategy by MBS to target any potential political rival or opposition"
According to Aljabri, it was after this, in October 2018, that MBS sent one of his "Tiger Squads" to assassinate him. Canadian authorities were waiting at the Ontario airport and sent all but one of the incoming alleged conspirators back home.
When Aljabri filed his complaint, acting assistant secretary Ryan Kaldahl at the State Department called Aljabri "a valued partner" to the US government and said it would seek to resolve the suit "in a manner that honors Dr. Aljabri's service to our country."
Ghada Oueiss is an Al Jazeera reporter who was also friends with Jamal Khashoggi. She has sued MBS, Saudi state-run TV, and a bunch of other Saudi officials for doing a whole bunch of crazy shit to try to stop her from reporting on the Khashoggi assassination.
Oueiss argues that the Saudi government hired people to harass her on social media, hacked her computer, and posted her bank statements and personal photos online. She says this was part of a larger Saudi campaign to intimidate her — and that it could not have taken place without MBS's approval.
The Saudi government is none too pleased about these lawsuits and is now asking its buddy Donald Trump to step in on its behalf. Lawyers for MBS are also trying to have the lawsuits dismissed.
Normally, foreign leaders are immune from civil suits like these in the US while they're in office. This is an ancient idea, meant to encourage diplomacy and avoid courts making political decisions.
However, at least two of the three plaintiffs (Cengiz and Aljabri) have alleged violations of the Torture Victim Protection Act and Alien Tort Statute, which allow claims for "flagrant human rights violations" and violations of international law. These laws have been used before to hold foreign government officials accountable for events that happened in other countries. (Check out Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, Kadic v. Karadzic, and Xuncax v. Gramajo for more info.) And SCOTUS has already held that the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act applies to foreign governments — but not to foreign officials.
Lawyers for MBS have also filed a motion to dismiss the Aljabri suit, arguing that MBS is entitled to foreign sovereign immunity, both as head-of-state and as a high-ranking member of the Saudi government. MBS is not actually the head-of-state for Saudi Arabia, so that argument should be easily dismissed. But whether courts will find MBS is entitled to state-based immunity, for the highest sitting officials of a given country, or conduct-based immunity, for carrying out orders in his official government capacity, remains an open question.
Foreign immunity is also a unique issue, where the executive branch of the federal government basically has free rein to decide when and to whom to grant immunity.
Under normal circumstances, the State Department would work with other federal agencies before issuing a recommendation to the DOJ. A recommendation to indemnify a foreign official, known as a "suggestion of immunity," is usually binding on federal courts. It could also deny the request by doing nothing or file a statement of interest with the court and continue to monitor the litigation.
But Donald Trump is the president and nothing is normal, so who the hell knows what's taking place behind closed doors right now. Unfortunately, it wouldn't surprise me at all if Trump personally granted immunity as part of his "fuck all y'all" parade on the way out of town. Especially with our own wannabe princeling, Jared Kushner, being MBS's BFF.
But hey, we would love to be wrong here. And maybe Trump will be too busy fucking up other things to jump in on this one!
Like Khalid Aljabri, Dr. Aljabri's oldest son, told the Washington Post,
"If granted, the U.S. would essentially be granting MBS immunity for conduct that succeeded in killing Jamal Khashoggi and failed to kill my dad. Lack of accountability is one thing, but allowing impunity through immunity is like issuing a license to kill."
Why haven't you followed Jamie on Twitter yet?
Help us pay the writers, if you want us to live forever! Okay bye.