GP Insights

GP Insights # 480, 7 March 2021

Saudi Arabia: The criminal case against Mohammed bin Salman
Sourina Bej

What happened? 
On 2 March, the Reporters without Borders (RSF) filed a criminal complaint in Germany, charging Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and four other high-ranking officials with crimes against humanity, including the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The lawsuit has been submitted in front of Germany’s Public Prosecutor.  

The lawsuit comes less than a week after the CIA released an intelligence report that concluded the Crown Prince had “approved an operation to capture or kill Khashoggi.” 

What is the background? 
First, Saudi Arabia’s notorious records in stifling press freedoms. RSF has ranked Saudi Arabia 170th out of 180 countries on its World Press Freedom Index. Their complaint takes into account the situation of 34 journalists arbitrarily imprisoned in the country. It includes writer Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in 2014 and 1,000 lashes for a blog he founded. The complaint comes after a detailed record of willful killing, torture, sexual violence, and enforced disappearances of journalists. Amongst it, the killing of Washington Post columnist Khashoggi has been one of the triggers for the RSF. After two years, the response to the killing has been only sanctions and visa bans by the US for 76 Saudi officials. The Biden administration has stopped short of pursuing a tough stance against Mohammed bin Salman. 

Second, the spurt in crackdowns of dissidents by Mohammed bin Salman. Apart from imprisoning journalists, dissenting voices of several activists and royal members have been equally repressed by the crown prince. In February 2021, the mysterious disappearance of a Saudi dissident, Ahmed Abdullah al-Harbi, living in Montreal adds to the new fear among the Saudi exiles of abduction and deaths. Similar has been the fear allayed by Prince Khaled bin Farhan al-Saud, who now lives in Düsseldorf in Germany after leaving the Kingdom where he had incensed MBS with his calls for human rights reforms. In recent years, several reports have surfaced of Saudi authorities under the Prince, repeatedly intimidating critics living abroad and in some instances abduct or repatriate them to Saudi Arabia. Domestically, Prince Mohammed has been tightening his grip on power since he was appointed as crown prince in 2017. With King Salman’s old age and possible ill-health as a trigger, he has detained senior royals in 2020 including two members, Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz and Mohammed bin Nayef who were immediate contenders to the royalty. 

Third, the role of Germany’s judiciary in safeguarding freedoms under international law. Germany has been selected to file the complaint due to its legal system that gives the court jurisdiction over international crimes committed abroad. Germany’s Code of Crimes Against International Law includes the right to prosecute crimes against humanity committed “as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilians.” The principle of universal jurisdiction is enshrined in Article 1, allowing German prosecutors and courts to prosecute crimes that were not committed in Germany or against German citizens. The most recent example has been on 24 February when under this law, a former member of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s security services was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for abetting the torture of civilians in the Syrian civil war. Commonly, the ICC hears the cases charged with crimes against humanity but Saudi Arabia has neither signed nor ratified the international agreement. Thus, making it important for RSF to choose Germany.

What does it mean? 
Two questions: Will Germany prosecute? Even if it does, will it have any impact on MBS?

Until now Germany has led cases pertaining to the ones filed against the Islamic State and officials involved in the Syrian civil war. But in indicting the crown prince, if the German court decides to hear the case it will send a strong signal from Europe to the country, which until now has been lacking since the killing of Khashoggi. The diplomatic relation is bound to play a role in determining how the verdict will be delivered. But more importantly with an ambition to power, it remains to be seen what MBS would do next. Until now the international pressure against the crown prince has done minimal to upset the domestic clampdowns and a possible hearing could do the same.  

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