BUENOS AIRES (NYTIMES) – International leaders arriving at an economic summit meeting in Buenos Aires confronted the delicate question on Thursday (Nov 29) of how to approach Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who US intelligence agencies and other Western officials have blamed for the killing of a Saudi dissident.
The summit, which begins on Friday, is the first test of the 33-year-old prince’s ability to retain his status as an international statesman after the assassination of Mr Jamal Khashoggi, a Virginia resident and Washington Post columnist who was ambushed on Oct 2 by Saudi agents in a consulate in Istanbul.
As the leaders assembled, an Argentine judge took the first steps in a legal inquiry into criminal charges against Prince Mohammed for human rights abuses.
The advocacy group Human Rights Watch petitioned the Argentine courts this week for a criminal investigation into Prince Mohammed’s potential responsibility for the torture of Khashoggi and certain Saudi prisoners as well as for war crimes committed by Saudi forces fighting in Yemen.
A Saudi-led military intervention there has led to what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, and UN experts have said both sides may have committed war crimes.
Legal authorities said there is no possibility that charges could be filed against Prince Mohammed before the end of the two-day summit, which begins on Friday.
Nonetheless, Judge Ariel Lijo formally requested information on Wednesday from Argentina’s Foreign Ministry about guarantees of legal immunity given to Prince Mohammed while he was attending the summit.
The judge also requested information from Turkey, Yemen, the International Criminal Court and elsewhere to begin to evaluating the allegations.
President Mauricio Macri of Argentina said on Thursday that the crown prince’s potential role in the killing of Mr Khashoggi was a legitimate subject for discussion at the meeting of the Group of 20, an association of the leaders of the world’s biggest economies.
“This issue that has impacted the world is on the table and maybe it will come out in bilateral meetings or in the agenda of the G-20,” Mr Macri said at a news conference.
President Emmanuel Macron of France said he would meet with Prince Mohammed on the sidelines of the meeting and intended to bring up the killing.
“I’ve always been very clear about the issue of Saudi Arabia and I will inevitably have the opportunity to discuss it with the Saudi crown prince,” Mr Macron said.
“Personally, I’m in favour of transparency and associating the international community in this affair, because the whole world is concerned,” he said.
President Donald Trump, for his part, said before leaving Washington on Thursday that he would have been happy to meet one-on-one with Prince Mohammed, but the summit schedule was already booked.
“I would have met with him, but we didn’t set that one up,” Mr Trump said.
Mr Trump has emphasised Saudi Arabia’s importance to the United States as a weapons buyer, source of oil and ally against Iran, and he has sought to cast doubt on the conclusion of intelligence agencies that the crown prince knew in advance about the Khashoggi killing.
“Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t,” the President said last week in a dictated statement.
Prince Mohammed, who has denied ordering or having advance knowledge of the killing, kept a low profile on Thursday.
He arrived in Buenos Aires on Wednesday, after a week-long tour of Arab capitals, and he was welcomed at the airport by the host country’s foreign minister, Mr Jorge Faurie.
Officials of Human Rights Watch said on Thursday that its petition to the Argentine courts had already shaped the atmosphere at the summit for Prince Mohammed.
“No world leader attending the G-20 summit today can ignore the fact that Mohammed bin Salman is under scrutiny for alleged war crimes in Yemen and torture,” said Mr José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch.
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