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Saudi crown prince girds for legal battle in a changing Washington over human rights allegations

Hatice Cengiz, the fiancee to the late dissident Saudi columnist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, filed a lawsuit in U.S. district court against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the journalist’s death.
Hatice Cengiz, the fiancee to the late dissident Saudi columnist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, filed a lawsuit in U.S. district court against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the journalist’s death. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
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Attorneys defending Saudi Arabia from lawsuits by 9/11 families will represent Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman against allegations in Washington that he targeted a former top Saudi intelligence official for assassination to prevent the spilling of secrets about his climb to power.

The legal moves in recent weeks come as the Saudi government digs in to protect the kingdom from critics in a pair of U.S. lawsuits filed since August against the crown prince and braces for possible political changes from Tuesday’s U.S. elections.

The separate cases accuse Mohammed of ordering the death and dismemberment of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 and of plotting to order a similar assassination of a former official and U.S. intelligence ally, Saad Aljabri.

The cases allege flagrant human rights violations, torture and murder by America’s oldest ally in the Middle East, and were brought by David Pressman for Aljabri and by Keith M. Harper for Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, and a human rights group he founded. Both attorneys are former Obama administration envoys to U.N. bodies who are launching a new human rights and global strategy practice with the Jenner & Block law firm.

Analysts say the cases come at a sensitive time for U.S.-Saudi relations, threatening ongoing scrutiny of Mohammed’s authoritarian rule as many Democrats and some Republican lawmakers have condemned the humanitarian catastrophe created by a Saudi-backed civil war in Yemen.

With the possibility that President Trump may not win reelection, the Saudis are belatedly realizing that “they’re going to be facing a much more hostile Washington than has been the case for the last four years, and maybe a more hostile Washington than they’ve ever faced before,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official now at the Brookings Institution.

Congress voted to end billions in arms sales to Saudi Arabia last year, for example, cuts that were averted only by a presidential veto.

“The stakes here are really quite high for Saudi Arabia,” said Riedel, who worked with generations of Saudi leaders after joining the CIA in 1977. “These lawsuits will only remind people . . . of a pattern of Saudi efforts to intimidate, if not kill, critics of the regime.”

“It’s hard to think of something they can do that would appease their critics in the United States now . . . and if Trump is gone they lose their defender,” he added.

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In the latest developments in Aljabri’s case, attorney Michael K. Kellogg notified the court last month that he would be defending Mohammed, also known by the initials MBS. Plaintiffs served notice of the lawsuit by mail to the royal court and Al Auja Palace in Riyadh, as well as via the encrypted phone messaging app WhatsApp.

In a statement Thursday announcing that Mohammed had been officially notified of the case, Aljabri’s son Khalid said, “We are hopeful that MBS could be required to explain to a U.S. federal judge why he tried to assassinate my dad shortly after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and why he continues a campaign of terror against my family.”

Khalid Aljabri, 36, a Boston cardiologist who joined his father in exile in Toronto, added in an interview that his father had WhatsApp contacts for Mohammed and other co-defendants, calling the service the crown prince’s “favorite tool to communicate, including with foreign leaders.”

Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, for example, raised cybersecurity concerns when he told Congress in 2018 that he used the unofficial encryption service for official White House business, including with Mohammed and other foreign officials, as CNN first reported.

A United Nations investigation in January reported that the cellphone of Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos was hacked in 2018 after he got a WhatsApp message that came from an account purportedly belonging to Mohammed.

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Kellogg declined to comment on a pending lawsuit, with a formal response to the court due Dec. 7.

But his firm tops a star-studded cast of defense attorneys mustered by the prince and more than a dozen Saudi co-defendants, including counsel who have represented Saudi interests over years of litigation tied to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

They include William W. Taylor III, representing the prince’s foundation and who won the acquittal in November 2019 of former Obama White House counsel Gregory B. Craig; Barry J. Pollack, representing several Saudi co-defendants and whose other clients include WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange; and Mitchell Berger, who has defended Saudi Arabia’s largest bank and the Palestinian government from claims for damages in alleged terrorism attacks.

Defense attorneys have not yet notified the court in the Khashoggi case, which was filed Oct. 20.

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James P. Kreindler, a New York lawyer who represents 9/11 victims and survivors, called Kellogg “a very smart and very good lawyer” who has defended the kingdom for nearly two decades.

Families, alleging that the kingdom supported al-Qaeda leading up to the 9/11 attacks, have sought billions of dollars in damages from banks, charities and individuals. Kreindler said Saudi defendants have typically been well represented with deep-pocketed support.

“I’m not aware of any defendant in 20 years in 9/11 cases who was not able to get good counsel,” Kreindler said.

“Michael Kellogg will raise every defense, throw every obstacle in their path,” Kreindler said of the Aljabri lawsuit, beginning with whether a U.S. judge has jurisdiction to weigh allegations of a plot by authorities in Riyadh to kill a former high-ranking official now living in Canada, and whether foreign government officials are immune from civil suits in the United States.

Pressman, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Security Council, declined to discuss the case. But in an interview, he and Harper, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council, said they had joined Jenner & Block since June intending to “live up to the responsibilities that private litigants and lawyers have to address egregious conduct by authoritarian regimes.”

The firm’s new human rights practice will assist corporations with independent investigations, crisis response, international negotiations and global business reviews, as well as litigate for individuals.

Earlier this year, the firm also added another former U.S. diplomat, Lee S. Wolosky, and attorney Douglass Mitchell, who together previously succeeded in freezing more than $2 billion in Iranian assets to enforce court judgments for the benefit of terrorism victims.

“Doug is the nation’s foremost lawyer in enforcing U.S. terrorism judgments abroad and is experienced litigating cases against banks under the Anti-Terrorism Act,” Wolosky said. “More generally, he is an exceedingly experienced and talented trial lawyer.”

“You have to be willing to treat gross human rights abuses with the attention they deserve and use instruments in this country that have been established to protect our rights and our democracy and defend our values,” Pressman said. “That’s not only a responsibility of human rights activists, but also of companies doing business in the world, where they have exposures to abuses.”

Aljabri asserted in a complaint filed Aug. 6 that the Saudi leader orchestrated a conspiracy to kill him in Canada that parallels one that resulted in the death of Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi columnist and Washington Post contributor. The CIA has assessed that Mohammed probably ordered Khashoggi’s killing himself, The Post previously reported.

Since March, Saudi authorities have arrested and held one of Aljabri’s sons, Omar, 22, and a daughter, Sarah, 20, the lawsuit alleges. Aljabri’s brother has also been arrested, and other relatives detained and tortured in and out of Saudi Arabia, the lawsuit asserts, “all in an effort to bait [Aljabri] back to Saudi Arabia to be killed.”

Cengiz and Democracy for the Arab World Now claimed in their lawsuit that Khashoggi was lured to the Saudi Consulate in Turkey to obtain documents that would allow him to marry pursuant to a directive by Mohammed to “permanently silence” his advocacy for democratic reform in the Arab world.

Saudi officials have asserted that Khashoggi’s death was a tragic accident, carried out by rogue agents who disobeyed orders to persuade Khashoggi to return to the kingdom.

The kingdom prosecuted people it said were Khashoggi’s killers in a trial broadly criticized by human rights groups, which noted that court sessions were closed to the public and that no senior officials were held to account.

Crown prince sought to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and detain him, U.S. intercepts show

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