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Press watchdog sues Saudi prince for crimes against humanity in Khashoggi murder

Reporters without Borders (RSF), a global non-profit defending press freedoms, filed a criminal complaint against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and four other Saudi officials for the assassination of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi and for other crimes against journalists.

Why it matters: It's the latest organization to demand accountability from top Saudi officials following a U.S. intelligence report released last week that assessed the Saudi prince approved the 2018 operation to "capture or kill" Khashoggi, a prominent government critic.

Details: The lawsuit, filed Monday with the German Public Prosecutor General, also addresses 34 cases of journalists that have been jailed in Saudi Arabia.

  • The complaint alleges that those journalists, as well as Khashoggi, have been victims of several crimes against humanity, "including willful killing, torture, sexual violence and coercion, enforced disappearance, unlawful deprivation of physical liberty, and persecution."
  • "A crime against humanity is a widespread and systematic attack committed by individuals in full knowledge of this attack against a civilian population," RSF said in a statement.

Be smart: The group says it filed the complaint in Germany because German laws give them jurisdiction over core international crimes committed abroad, and because the courts have shown a willingness to tackle such issues.

  • "In Saudi Arabia, journalists, who are a civilian population according to international law, are victims of widespread and systematic attacks for political reasons in furtherance of a state policy aimed at punishing or silencing them. The five suspects identified in the complaint are fully responsible," RSF said.
  • German prosecutors will now decide whether to take up the case, but there's no guarantee that they will.

The big picture: The U.S. intelligence assessment has drawn scrutiny to the Biden administration, which said last week in light of the report's findings that it would not sanction the crown prince himself — worrying that doing so could threaten the country's strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia.

  • "President Biden is facing his first major test of a campaign promise and, it appears, he’s about to fail it," Washington Post Publisher and CEO Fred Ryan wrote Monday.
  • "It appears as though under the Biden administration, despots who offer momentarily strategic value to the United States might be given a 'one free murder' pass."
  • "The sad bottom line here is that when it comes to press-freedom issues, particularly internationally, there is less distance between Trump and Biden than we’d like to believe," Columbia Journalism Review columnist Jon Allsop wrote Monday.

The bottom line: The concern amongst press advocates is that in failing to take tougher action on the crown prince and his allies, the Biden administration is setting a global precedent that the U.S. will not come after other despots if they harm journalists abroad.

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