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Khashoggi: Saudi crown prince accused of trying to dodge US lawsuit by becoming PM

Plaintiffs in US seeking justice for Khashoggi's murder say new title is calculated move to seal his immunity in court case
Mohammed bin Salman speaks to Joe Biden in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on 16 July (Reuters)

The elevation of Mohammed bin Salman to prime minister of Saudi Arabia, days before the Biden administration was set to decide whether to grant him immunity in the final court case over Jamal Khashoggi's murder, has been accused of being a ruse to shield the crown prince from justice.

On Tuesday, King Salman ordered a reshuffle in which the crown prince, sometimes referred to as MBS, became prime minister, a post traditionally held by the king, in a move designed to protect him from litigation, according to plaintiffs in the US lawsuit.

"There is one reason, and only one reason, MBS has now added 'prime minister' to his many unearned titles: a desperate gambit for immunity in the lawsuit we've brought for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi," tweeted Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn).

Dawn, the US-based advocacy group that Khashoggi established and ran, and his fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, are plaintiffs in the final lawsuit, filed in a US federal court, which is seeking justice for Khashoggi's killing.

The Middle East Eye and Washington Post columnist was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018, in an operation that both Turkish intelligence and the CIA have said was sanctioned by the crown prince.

'The fight for justice must succeed. It will not be stopped because MBS bestows another title on himself'

- Hatice Cengiz

On 3 October, the Biden administration is due to file a statement of interest in which it is expected to lay out whether the crown prince should be protected by sovereign immunity in the case.

The administration had been scheduled to file its response on 1 August, but asked - and received - an extension from Judge John Bates in July to postpone until next week.

The US federal lawsuit is the remaining legal action over Khashoggi's murder, after a Turkish court shut down its own proceedings in June and transferred the case to Saudi judicial authorities, whose prosecution of the alleged killers has been widely declared a sham.

The US case, if it proceeds, could open what one source previously described to Middle East Eye as a "pandora's box" of information, with the court potentially demanding the crown prince give evidence in person.

Whitson and Cengiz both said they believe their lawsuit should proceed, despite the crown prince's new position.

“The fight for justice must succeed," Cengiz said in a statement shared by her lawyer. "It will not be stopped because MBS bestows another title on himself.”

"This sort of title-washing will do nothing to circumvent our demand for justice for the murder of Khashoggi," Whitson tweeted. "Whether against him or his minion co-defendants, we will have our day in court and expose the gruesome role he played in this crime. And we will win."

The Saudi foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A US government official indicated that the US would continue to engage closely with the Saudi government on variety of issues, and referred MEE to the state and justice departments on questions of sovereign immunity.

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