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Should Saudi Crown Prince Be Charged with War Crimes? G20 Host Argentina Considers Probe

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could face prosecution in Argentina for alleged complicity in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudi-led humanitarian crisis in Yemen. On Wednesday, an Argentine prosecutor reportedly accepted a request by Human Rights Watch to prosecute the crown prince, just hours after he landed in Argentina ahead of the G20 summit. Argentina recognizes universal jurisdiction for war crimes and torture, which means it is able to press charges against the crown prince while he is in the country. We speak with Reed Brody, counsel and spokesperson for Human Rights Watch, and Shireen Al-Adeimi, Yemeni scholar, activist and an assistant professor at Michigan State University.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Argentina, where he could face prosecution for alleged complicity in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudi-led humanitarian crisis in Yemen. On Wednesday, an Argentine prosecutor reportedly accepted a request by Human Rights Watch to prosecute the crown prince hours after he landed in Argentina ahead of the G20 summit. Argentina recognizes universal jurisdiction for war crimes and torture, which means they are able to press charges against the crown prince while he’s in their territory.

An Argentine judge will now determine if either Saudi Arabia or Yemen have already opened investigations on the prince for possible crimes against humanity. If not, the principle of universal jurisdiction may apply. The Supreme Court of Argentina would then have to decide whether Prince Mohammed is protected by diplomatic immunity, a process that would take longer than the crown prince’s stay in the country. The G20 begins on Friday.

Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth said, quote, “World leaders would do well to think twice before posing for pictures next to someone who may come under investigation for war crimes and torture.”

AMY GOODMAN: The crown prince arrived in Buenos Aires after a trip to Tunisia, where he was met by demonstrators protesting his alleged involvement in the killing of The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, October 2nd, where he was murdered by Saudi agents. Saudi Arabia has acknowledged the murder but continues to deny involvement of the Saudi royal family.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the United States are reportedly moving toward finalizing a $15 billion arms deal. CNBC is reporting Saudi Arabia signed a letter of acceptance with the United States for Lockheed Martin’s THAAD missile system. This comes as criticism is mounting over Saudi Arabia’s role in the catastrophic war in Yemen.

For more, we go to Barcelona, Spain, where we’re joined by Reed Brody, counsel and spokesperson for Human Rights Watch. Still with us, professor Shireen Al-Adeimi, Yemeni scholar, activist and assistant professor at Michigan State University.

Reed Brody, let’s begin with you. So, explain further exactly what universal jurisdiction is and how it relates to Argentina and the visit of Prince Salman.

REED BRODY: Universal jurisdiction is the principle that some crimes are so heinous that the courts of any country can, and in certain cases must, take jurisdiction over them. Universal jurisdiction is international law’s response to the spectacle of tyrants and torturers who cover themselves at home with immunity and impunity. It’s the principle that led to the arrest, for instance, of Chilean General Augusto Pinochet when he traveled to London. It’s the principle under which the former dictator of Chad, Hissène Habré, was prosecuted in Senegal.

And Argentina is one of the countries that best actually incorporates the principle in its Constitution and in its laws. Argentina has ratified the International Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions, and both of those conventions say that if someone alleged to have committed war crimes or torture comes into your territory, that you have a duty to submit that case to your competent authorities for the purposes of prosecution.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Reed Brody, why then are people saying that, as a head of state, he will be protected by diplomatic immunity?

REED BRODY: Well, first of all, he’s not a head of state. The head of state is his father.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Right, but he effectively serves as head of state.

REED BRODY: Well, that doesn’t—but he’s not the head of state. And under—I mean, the law on immunities is not totally settled, but the most important pronouncement from the International Court of Justice says that it applies to the head of state, to the head of government and to the foreign minister. And although he is obviously the power behind the throne, he doesn’t hold those positions.

Now, it’s also possible that the government of Argentina has or could or has given him mission immunity under the international—there’s an international treaty on diplomatic missions, and they would have had to authorize his immunity prior to his arrival. So there are a number of issues in play here that—and as you said earlier, the court has asked the government to inform it on what exactly the crown prince’s status is.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to get your response to the various statements of U.S. officials. I mean, you have the director of the CIA, Gina Haspel, who went to Turkey, heard the tape, came back, and now, reportedly, the CIA says they believe that Mohammed bin Salman ordered Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. But I want to turn to Defense Secretary James Mattis speaking Wednesday.

DEFENSE SECRETARY JAMES MATTIS: We have no smoking gun that the crown prince was involved, not the intelligence community or anyone else. There is no smoking gun.

REPORTER: Have you listened to the tape?

DEFENSE SECRETARY JAMES MATTIS: No, I cannot understand that language, but I have spent more than enough time in service of our country. I know what grim circumstances can be. I needed to see what was said, and I read the translations of what is alleged to be the tape. We do not have the tapes. We do not have the tapes. At least I’m not aware that we do.

AMY GOODMAN: He went on to say that he didn’t listen to it because he doesn’t speak Arabic. At the White House, national security adviser John Bolton told reporters he hasn’t heard the tape and would not be listening to it.

JOHN BOLTON: No, I haven’t listened to it. And I guess I should ask you: Why do you think I should? What do you think I’ll learn from it?

REPORTER: Well, you’re the national security adviser. You might have access to that sort of intelligence.

JOHN BOLTON: Yeah. How many in this room speak Arabic?

REPORTER: You don’t have access to an interpreter?

JOHN BOLTON: Well, you want me to listen to it? What am I going to learn from—I mean, if they were speaking Korean, I wouldn’t learn any more from it, either.

AMY GOODMAN: “What would I learn from it?” he says, since he doesn’t speak Arabic. That’s the U.S. national security adviser, John Bolton. President Trump also said he won’t listen to the tape, calling it a “suffering tape.” Reed Brody, you’ve been dealing with international diplomacy for many years in various organizations, most recently for years at Human Rights Watch. Can you respond to what they’re saying, that they would not listen to the tape of the murder of Khashoggi—the fact that there even is a tape is quite amazing—but because they don’t speak Arabic?

REED BRODY: Well, obviously, you learn a lot, even if you don’t speak the language, from listening to something like that. I think it’s kind of obvious.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, aren’t there translators?

REED BRODY: Well, I mean, they have read—I mean, there are transcripts, but obviously those only come to life when you listen to how these things went down as they went down. You understand a lot from actually listening to the words. I mean, you know, the information that we all have is quite damning. I mean, the information that is in the public domain, even, from the—that the Turkish authorities have released, is very, very strong. Obviously, you would need to make the link.

And in the presentations that we made this week to the Argentine prosecutor, we were only able to give what was in public and what we have, but those are very, very strong. And we were hoping that the Argentine judiciary would take advantage of the crown prince’s presence in Argentina to ask him the questions about Jamal Khashoggi, about Yemen, about torture in Saudi Arabia that need to be asked.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Reed Brody, it seems striking that these senior U.S. officials, I mean, including the president, would so publicly say that they haven’t listened to the tape. Why would they do that? Does that somehow have legal implications that they can claim they never heard what happened?

REED BRODY: I don’t think it has—I mean, my guess is as good as yours. It seems to me an attempt, basically, to close their eyes to what is going on, to close their ears, to close their eyes, and to try to avoid the evidence of what has happened here, just as they’re avoiding the evidence of what is happening in Yemen.

AMY GOODMAN: And the representative of the U.S. government who has heard the tape, Gina Haspel, is reportedly blocked from going to speak to the senators yesterday as they debated this historic vote that they took. Reed, if you can talk about how universal jurisdiction has been used in other countries, just very quickly—you briefly mentioned them—and particularly being in the country of Argentina, the Dirty Wars and the history of this place? And do you think that Mohammed bin Salman would have even gone to Argentina if he had the shred of belief that they would arrest him?

REED BRODY: Well, certainly, one of the main reasons why we filed this complaint in Argentina is it’s the first country in a long time that the prince has visited that has a democratic government, an independent judiciary, and that, because of its experience with the Dirty War, has really become a leader in applying international human rights principles. I mean, Argentine courts are actually investigating, under the principle of universal jurisdiction, crimes committed during the Franco regime in Spain, because Spain refuses to prosecute those crimes.

I mentioned earlier the Pinochet case, which for Latin Americans is the most important. This was a case where after the transition in Chile, people in Chile wanted to see Pinochet prosecuted. Victims obviously wanted to see him prosecuted. But he had set it up, he had built a wall of impunity for himself in Chile. So it was only possible to file complaints in other countries.

And when Pinochet went to the United Kingdom, a Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzón, who was handling those complaints, heard about his presence in London, sent an arrest warrant. The British courts arrested—the British police arrested General Pinochet. And in two very famous decisions, when Pinochet challenged his arrest in Britain, the British House of Lords, which at the time was the Supreme Court, said, “No, the international convention on torture says exactly what it—it means exactly what it says. Either you arrest this person and prosecute him, or you extradite him.” And that principle is built into Argentine law. The torture convention has a rank in Argentina equal to the Constitution.

So, you know, maybe—I assume that the crown prince has some very good lawyers, and I don’t know what they’ve told him, but he does face legal jeopardy. It may be that, and it probably will be, that he will leave the country, leave Argentina, without being arrested in the next couple of days, but he does face legal jeopardy. And I think this is a warning to him that he may be able to get away with his acts in Saudi Arabia, he may be able to get away with them in Yemen, but when he goes into democratic countries with independent judiciaries that uphold principles of human rights, his immunity may not shield him.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Reed Brody, the Argentine government, under Mauricio Macri, has suggested more or less that nothing will come of this. How much independence does the judiciary have in Argentina?

REED BRODY: Well, it’s one of the more independent judiciaries in Latin America, the Supreme Court, which may—it’s not clear yet which court has jurisdiction over this case, and that partly depends on the status that the government says the crown prince has. The Supreme Court of Argentina is known for its independence. Obviously, you know, this would be enormous, if you were arrested, and it would require a huge leap by a judge to do this. But we’ve seen that before. This is what Baltasar Garzón, the Spanish judge, did in the Pinochet case.

Right now, the judge, already—the prosecutor yesterday said, “We have jurisdiction, potentially. We apply the rules of international law and universal jurisdiction.” He asked the government, as you mentioned, what the prince’s status was. He also asked, “Are there any procedures going forward in Saudi Arabia and Yemen?” Obviously the answer is no. It’s more than likely that this will take more than the three days that the prince is going to stay in Buenos Aires.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Professor Al-Adeimi, as a Yemeni scholar, as a person deeply concerned about human rights around the world and in your own country of Yemen, what would it mean to you if Mohammed bin Salman were arrested for crimes against humanity? And even if he isn’t, this discussion that has taken place and the vote that took place in the Senate?

SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: I think the discussion is certainly symbolic, and of course an arrest would just be an immense victory to those of us who have been calling him what he is, which is a war criminal. And he’s been a war criminal for the last four years, since he took power in Saudi Arabia. He has been getting away with starving an entire nation. I’d remind your listeners that this is a war crime under international humanitarian law—to block a country from importing, exporting, receiving aid by land, air and sea. And he’s been doing that with the help of the U.S. and UAE and other countries. He’s been starving an entire nation. He’s bombarding them. People are trapped within the country. He’s attacking water plants and food resources—and getting away with it.

And so I think an arrest would certainly mean that, you know, there’s still some hope left in this world, that a war criminal would get his just desserts. And I think it’s important for us to just be having this conversation even. Unfortunately, it’s taken a very long time for this to get to the level it has, or the international sphere, to even have this conversation of being—the potential of being arrested. He’s been traveling for the past four years; nobody really brought these things up before. But I think it’s really important. Better late than never. And people are still dying. Kids are still dying in Yemen. A child dies every 10 minutes. So it’s urgent, it’s important, and I think it sends a strong signal that you really can’t get away with this any longer.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Shireen Al-Adeimi, Yemeni scholar, activist, assistant professor at Michigan State University, speaking to us from Michigan. And Reed Brody, counsel for Human Rights Watch, speaking to us from Barcelona, Spain.

When we come back, the link between climate change and meat consumption. We’ll speak to a leading vegan and columnist, George Monbiot. Stay with us.

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