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Saudi crown prince hit with criminal complaint in Germany

Leah Carter
March 2, 2021

The complaint was filed for Mohammed bin Salman's alleged role in the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Reporters Without Borders also cited the arbitrary detention of 34 journalists in the Gulf country.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks in Riyadh in 2018
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks in Riyadh in 2018Image: Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Royal Court/REUTERS

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on Tuesday said it had filed a criminal complaint against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with Germany's federal public prosecutor's office. The complaint pertains to his role in the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the detention of other media professionals. 

The complaint, filed on Monday at one of the country's top courts in Karlsruhe, accuses bin Salman of crimes against humanity, additionally for the arbitrary detention of 34 journalists.

Thirty-three of the journalists listed in the 500-page document are still currently in detention, including blogger Raif Badawi, the creator of the website Free Saudi Liberals.

"The official opening of a criminal investigation in Germany into the crimes against humanity in Saudi Arabia would be a world first," said RSF Germany Director Christian Mihr in a statement. "We ask the Public Prosecutor General to open a situation analysis, with a view to formally launching a prosecutorial investigation and issuing arrest warrants."

Complaint names several Saudi officials

"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," an RSF statement said. "The five suspects identified in the complaint are fully responsible."

The complaint identifies four primary suspects in addition to bin Salman, including the crown prince's close adviser Saud al-Qahtani and three other high-ranking Saudi officials.

Complaint to 'send a clear signal': RSF

RSF director of international campaigns Rebecca Vincent said there was currently "complete impunity" for crimes against journalists, and that the complaint aimed to establish accountability.

"If it is successful, we believe that it could be a game changer," Vincent told DW. 

"It would send a clear signal to others in Saudi Arabia and ... in other parts of the world who have committed similar crimes against journalists, that the world will not tolerate this, that even if they evade justice in their own country contexts, there will be other means of achieving accountability."

RSF cited the German Code of Crimes Against International Law (VStGB), under which the organization says the specified journalists are victims of multiple counts of crimes against humanity, "including willful killing, torture, sexual violence and coercion, enforced disappearance, unlawful deprivation of physical liberty, and persecution."

"The 35 cases detailed in the complaint reveal a system that threatens the life and liberty of any journalist in Saudi Arabia — in particular those who speak out publicly against the Saudi government," RSF said.  

German judiciary the 'ideal' choice

The RSF complaint comes just a week after a German court sentenced a former Syrian secret service agent to prison, marking the first time a court outside Syria ruled on state-sponsored torture by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. 
The agent, Eyad A., was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison on charges of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity. He was arrested in 2019 in Germany. In bringing the case, German prosecutors invoked the principle of universal jurisdiction in international law, which allows war crimes committed by foreigners to be prosecuted in other countries. 

RSF decided to file the complaint with the German judiciary, as the advocacy organization determined that German laws give them the most jurisdiction over crimes committed abroad. 

"German courts have already shown readiness and willingness to prosecute international criminals," the statement said. Additionally, German officials have expressed their interest in both Khashoggi and Badawi's cases, along with others involving press freedom. 

Khashoggi, a journalist with The Washington Post and a prominent critic of bin Salman, was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.