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Saudi prince's lawyers says PM title ensures legal immunity

— Riyadh (AFP)

Lawyers for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have argued that his appointment as prime minister qualifies him for immunity from lawsuits in US courts, including one related to the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Prince Mohammed, who previously served as deputy prime minister and defence minister, was named prime minister by royal decree last week, sparking concern from human rights activists and government critics that he was looking to skirt exposure in cases filed in foreign courts.

His lawyers had previously argued that he "sits at the apex of Saudi Arabia's government" and thus qualifies for the kind of immunity US courts afford foreign heads of state and other high-ranking officials.

Last week's royal decree "leaves no doubt that the Crown Prince is entitled to status-based immunity", his lawyers said in a filing Monday in a case brought in 2020 by Khashoggi's fiancee, Hatice Cengiz.

The 2018 killing of Khashoggi, a Saudi insider turned critic, in the kingdom's Istanbul consulate temporarily turned Prince Mohammed into a pariah in the West.

But he has been welcomed back on the world stage this year, notably by US President Joe Biden, who travelled to Saudi Arabia in July despite an earlier pledge to make the kingdom a "pariah".

Last year, Biden declassified an intelligence report that found Prince Mohammed had approved the operation against Khashoggi, an assertion Saudi authorities deny.

The Biden administration has yet to weigh in on whether it believes Prince Mohammed qualifies for immunity.

A judge had given US lawyers a deadline of October 3 to file a "statement of interest" on the question.

But on Friday, citing Prince Mohammed's new position, the administration requested an additional 45 days to make up its mind.

That request was granted and the new deadline is November 17.

The legal threats to Prince Mohammed in US courts go beyond Khashoggi.

He was also named in a lawsuit filed by Saad al-Jabri, a former top intelligence official who fell out of favour as Prince Mohammed manoeuvred to become first in line to the throne in 2017.

That complaint accuses Prince Mohammed of trying to lure Jabri back to Saudi Arabia from exile in Canada -- then, when that didn't work, "deploying a hit squad" to kill him on Canadian soil, a plot foiled when most of the would-be assailants were turned back at the border.

However on Friday a judge granted a motion to dismiss the case, saying his court did not have jurisdiction over nearly all of the defendants listed by Jabri -- a group that includes Prince Mohammed, other Saudi officials and "several US-based individuals".

Prince Mohammed's father, 86-year-old King Salman, has been hospitalised twice this year, but he chaired the weekly cabinet meeting Tuesday, just as he did the day Prince Mohammed's promotion was announced.

In July, a group of NGOs filed a complaint in France alleging that Prince Mohammed was an accomplice to Khashoggi's torture and enforced disappearance.

They said the charges could be prosecuted in France, which recognises universal jurisdiction.

Prince Mohammed "does not have immunity from prosecution because as crown prince he is not head of state", they said.

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