Argentina considers charges against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ahead of G-20 summit

The investigation is in its early stages, and diplomatic or other kinds of immunity may ultimately shield Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from any potential charges. PHOTO: REUTERS

BUENOS AIRES (NYTIMES) - Argentine authorities are looking into possible criminal charges against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia as he prepares to attend an international summit meeting of world leaders this week in Buenos Aires, officials involved in the inquiry said.

The inquiry, centring on allegations of war crimes during the Saudi-led military intervention in neighbouring Yemen, is the most significant test yet of Crown Prince Mohammed's ability to move past the international uproar that has surrounded him since the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Virginia resident and Washington Post columnist.

The Khashoggi case, too, is expected to be part of the inquiry as well as allegations of torture in Saudi Arabia.

The investigation in Argentina, initiated by a complaint lodged by Human Rights Watch, the advocacy group, is in its early stages, and diplomatic or other kinds of immunity may ultimately shield the prince from any potential charges.

Argentine officials called it extremely unlikely that the inquiry might produce an arrest warrant before the gathering, which is set to begin on Friday (Nov 30).

But even a small risk of a messy dispute in the Argentine courts could overshadow a trip previously seen as a chance for Prince Mohammed to show he remained welcome among world leaders even after the conclusion of US intelligence agencies that he had authorised the killing of Mr Khashoggi.

Any retreat from the Group of 20 summit meeting, attended by the leaders of the world's largest economies, could be a sign that the lingering stigma of the Khashoggi killing could hamper the continued effectiveness of the 33-year-old crown prince as a regional leader - a role that officials of the Trump administration have cited as a main reason to stand by him.

President Donald Trump last week pushed back against the conclusion of US intelligence services about Prince Mohammed's culpability while also acknowledging that he may have known about the killing.

"Maybe he did and maybe he didn't," Mr Trump said in a statement.

Mr Trump insisted that Washington should nonetheless continue to back Prince Mohammed, calculating that it was in the nation's economic and strategic interest to do so because Saudi Arabia is a valuable customer for US weapons, an important source of oil and a useful partner in containing Iran.

Bolstered by Mr Trump's support, Prince Mohammed recently embarked on a week of visits to Saudi allies in the region, where Saudi news organisations photographed him smiling and shaking hands with fellow Arab rulers, with no mention of the Khashoggi case.

But the move by Argentine prosecutors now threatens to interrupt his victory lap just as it reaches its finish, at the summit meeting where he was set to mingle with Mr Trump and other Western leaders of the G-20 countries.

"Mohammed bin Salman should know that he may face a criminal probe if he ventures to Argentina," Mr Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

The law in Argentina is unusually favourable for bringing international human rights cases because of the legacy of the country's transition from a military dictatorship. During the military's rule from 1976 to 1983, some 30,000 people were killed or disappeared. Argentina's own immunity laws were overturned in the early 2000s, and its prosecutors have since charged thousands with human rights violations committed under military rule.

Argentine law has incorporated a broad interpretation of universal jurisdiction, the doctrine that some serious rights violations constitute offences against humanity and should be subject to prosecution anywhere.

Although it is the killing and subsequent dismemberment of Mr Khashoggi by Saudi agents in a consulate in Istanbul that has most damaged Prince Mohammed's international image, the Argentine inquiry appears to centre on potential crimes committed during the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen.

Prince Mohammed, who is the kingdom's Defence Minister as well as its de facto day-to-day ruler, has led a 3½-year bombing campaign and naval blockade of Yemen by a coalition of Arab allies seeking to dislodge from power a Yemeni faction allied with Iran.

The conflict has resulted in widespread famine and disease as well as thousands of civilian casualties. The United Nations has called the results of the Yemen conflict the world's worst humanitarian crisis, and UN experts have said that both sides in the conflict may be guilty of war crimes.

The Human Rights Watch petition, delivered to the Argentine judicial system on Monday, argues that Prince Mohammed was responsible for multiple violations of international law in Yemen, including "indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes on civilians" as well as the use of internationally prohibited munitions known as cluster bombs.

By restricting critical food imports, the Saudi-led coalition "may also have violated the prohibition against using starvation as a method of warfare, which is a war crime", the petition argued.

UN officials have said that the Saudi-led blockade has put 14 million people at risk of starvation, and a UN panel of experts concluded earlier this year that, "with the requisite intent," the blockade of Yemen "may amount to international crimes", the petition noted.

In addition, "the Saudi government under the authority of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been implicated in serious allegations of torture and other ill treatment of Saudi citizens", the petition argued. Several recent reports, including in The New York Times and by Human Rights Watch, have recounted allegations that detained women activists were subjected to electrical shocks, beatings and sexual harassment.

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