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Pressure building to hold MBS accountable for journalist's murder

A bill to ban MBS from US soil and a federal lawsuit against the Saudi crown prince are moving forward.

Reporting | Middle East

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s troubles in Washington are mounting, as both a bill that would ban him from U.S. soil and a federal lawsuit by an organization started by Jamal Khashoggi move forward.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee announced on Thursday that it would include the Khashoggi Accountability Act in next week’s markup meeting, opening the bill to amendments and debate. The same day, lawyers for the crown prince — usually known by his initials MBS — accepted a notice to appear in a wrongful death lawsuit against him.

However, Congress did not move forward on a proposal by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D–Minn.) to impose direct penalties against the crown prince. Omar’s MBS Must Be Sanctioned Act would have frozen MBS’s assets in the United States, while the Khashoggi Accountability Act only imposes a travel ban on officials involved in the Khashoggi assassination, including MBS.

Rep. Omar’s office told Responsible Statecraft that it plans to introduce amendments to the Khashoggi Accountability Act. A spokesperson declined to provide more details.

An intelligence report declassified by the U.S. government last month found that MBS had approved of Khashoggi’s assassination inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. The Biden administration banned unnamed Saudi officials from the United States in the wake of the report’s release, but declined to impose sanctions on the crown prince himself.

The U.S. State Department argued at the time that sanctioning MBS would “greatly diminish” U.S. influence over the kingdom. The Saudi foreign ministry said that it “completely rejects” the findings of the report.

Saudi human rights advocates have held out hope that Congress or the courts could punish MBS instead.

Khalid Aljabri, a Toronto resident whose family has been targeted by the Saudi government, told Responsible Statecraft earlier this month that personal consequences and “direct accountability” were needed to deter future attacks on Saudi dissidents abroad. 

So did Sarah Leah Whitson, founder of Democracy in the Arab World Now, an organization founded by Khashoggi before his death.

DAWN and Khashoggi’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz have both filed a wrongful death lawsuit against MBS and a host of other Saudi officials linked to Khashoggi’s death. On March 8, a federal judge allowed them to serve MBS with a notice to appear in court through a variety of unconventional means, including WhatsApp messages and newspaper ads.

The law firm Kellogg, Hansen, Todd, Figel & Frederick accepted the notice on Thursday, according to a press release by DAWN.

“While MBS may have evaded sanctions by our government for his role in the murder, he won't evade prosecution by our judicial system for the damage he has caused us and Cengiz,” DAWN executive director Sarah Leah Whitson stated in the press release.

She added in an email to Responsible Statecraft that the Khashoggi Accountability Act was an “important opportunity…to do what Biden promised but failed to do: sanction MBS. Although this bill would only ban him from traveling to the US, and MBS hasn’t dared step foot on our shores since he murdered Khashoggi, it’s a tremendously important message that the U.S. does not want murderers to enter our country.”

Photo: Kemal Aslan via
Reporting | Middle East
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