2:06 p.m. EST
MR PATEL: Good afternoon, everybody. I have a couple of quick things off the top and then I’m happy to dive right into your questions.
So, first, last night the U.S. and Japan participated in a ceremony to note Japan’s contributions to the Lunar Gateway and ongoing support for the International Space Station. Our embassy in Tokyo and NASA put out statements that I’d encourage you to look at for additional information, and we are incredibly proud to work with our ally, Japan, to further peaceful exploration and the use of outer space.
Additionally, today the Conflict Observatory program released its latest independent report. It details numerous instances indicating unjust detentions, disappearances in Kherson, Ukraine, at the hands of Russia’s forces during its brutal war. The report presents publicly available information about the experiences of more than 220 individuals who are victims, survivors, or witnesses to torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, including gender-based violence.
There is only one country waging this unprovoked, premeditated war of choice with willful disregard for human life, and that is Russia. Today, we reiterate our call, again, for Russia to halt its filtration operations, its violations and abuses of human rights, its violations of international humanitarian law, and its violation of the UN Charter. We urgently call on Russia to withdraw its forces to end a needless war that it cannot and will not win, no matter how despicable and desperate its tactics. We remain unwavering in our support of the government and people of Ukraine as they defend their country and their freedom.
And lastly, while Iranians continue to peacefully protest in Iran, led by Iran’s women, girls, and students, I’d like to take a moment to commemorate the protests that took place in Iran three years ago. In November 2019, as now, security forces then used lethal force against protestors, and killed hundreds and detained thousands, all under the cover of weeks-long internet shutdowns.
Even today, family members of November 2019 protestors are being arrested, detained, and intimidated for publicly demanding justice for their deceased relatives. The United States remembers the “Bloody November” and we mourn the loss of Iran’s innocent peaceful protestors.
Iran continues to disregard its people’s human rights and continues to fire on and kill peaceful protestors today, including many women and children. Iranian authorities aim to stop dissent and stop the world from watching its brutal crackdown and to prevent the world from taking note of its state-sponsored violence against women.
But the world is watching, and Iran’s human rights abuses must not be without consequence. We continue to pursue unilateral action, multilateral measures, and UN mechanisms to hold Iranian authorities accountable for this flagrant denial of the Iranian people’s human rights and fundamental freedoms.
And with Matt – Matt, if you want to kick us off.
QUESTION: Yes. Recognizing that the Attorney General is about to speak in about five minutes and talk about DOJ issues, I want to ask you about a different DOJ issue, the one that arose last night. And I’m just wondering if you can explain to us in layman’s terms why, exactly, the Saudi MBS case is different in terms of sovereign immunity than cases that had been brought – civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions – against other foreign leaders and other foreign governments.
MR PATEL: Sure, Matt. So what this stems from is that Prime Minister – Prime Minister bin Salman is immune from suit in U.S. courts while he holds the office of prime minister. He is the head of government. It has nothing to do with the merits of this case. The immunity determination is a legal one. The United States has consistently and across administrations applied these principles to heads of states, heads of governments, and foreign ministers while they are in office. This is an unbroken practice and it is also something that we expect others to affront to the United States as well. And the normal practice of U.S. Government has been to file a suggestion of immunity upon request by a federal court for heads of state and government.
And specifically to your question, when a foreign state, as opposed to foreign officials of the foreign state, is sued in U.S. courts, sovereign immunity is determined by the courts under the provisions of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Because the sovereign immunity of a foreign state is governed by FSIA, the U.S. does not file suggestions of immunity in civil actions brought against foreign states. That, however, does not address the immunity of a head of government which is at issue in this case.
QUESTION: Okay. So the difference is that this is a suit that’s filed against him personally —
MR PATEL: That is my understanding.
QUESTION: — rather than against the Saudi Government?
MR PATEL: Correct.
QUESTION: So does that mean that if the suit was filed against the Saudi Government, you wouldn’t weigh in with an opinion?
MR PATEL: I will let the Department of Justice speak to the specific legal mechanisms.
QUESTION: They’re a little busy right now.
MR PATEL: I will let them —
QUESTION: I don’t think – I don’t think we’re going to get an answer from them on this.
MR PATEL: I will let them speak to the specific mechanisms, but as it relates to this case specifically that arose overnight, this immunity flows directly from the crown prince’s role as prime minister, which is the head of government, which he was appointed to earlier this year. And again, I want to reiterate that this is a legal determination. It is on no basis of the merits of the case at hand. This designation only applies to the crown prince in his role of head of government. It does not speak to the underlying merits of the case nor does it impact the other defendants in the case either.
QUESTION: Okay. So prior to him being named prime minister, this suggestion of immunity wouldn’t have applied?
MR PATEL: I’m not going to get into hypotheticals or what —
QUESTION: That’s not a hypothetical.
MR PATEL: — we would or wouldn’t have done.
QUESTION: That is an actual fact that he was not the prime minister as of a couple weeks and now he is.
MR PATEL: What I can say, Matt, is that this designation that we – that was filed last night stems from the fact that he is a head of government. He is the prime minister, and this is something that has happened in a longstanding, well-established way. It is a principle of common law, and it’s a principle of international law. And we’ve applied these principles regularly.
QUESTION: Okay. So just to make sure that I understand it, to put a fine point on it: When a suit is brought against a government – like Iran, like North Korea, like Sudan – the State Department doesn’t weigh in on sovereign immunity grounds?
MR PATEL: We are weighing in because there was a —
QUESTION: No, no, no. I mean not in this case, but I mean in other cases.
MR PATEL: Right. What I am trying to explain my understanding of the mechanism, which is in this, the court asked the Department of Justice to do so. It is not my understanding that courts would do so if the defendant is a sovereign state versus an official, but again, I will let the Department of Justice speak to the specific legal mechanisms.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?
MR PATEL: I’ll work the room, Alex. Don’t worry.
Daphne, go ahead.
QUESTION: On Russia, Russia said today it hoped to clinch a prisoner swap with the U.S. to return convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout in exchange for Brittney Griner. Do you view this as a positive step and have you gotten any indication from Russia directly that it is more open to a prisoner swap?
MR PATEL: So I’m not going to comment on specifics of any proposal other than to say that we have made a substantial offer that the Russian Federation has consistently failed to negotiate in good faith on. As you all remember, Secretary Blinken came down to this room earlier this summer and laid that out to you all that we had made a substantial offer to the Russian Federation for the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. The U.S. Government has continued to follow up on that offer and propose alternative potential ways forward with the Russian Government to show our continued engagement on this matter, and the Russian Government’s failure to seriously negotiate on these issues in the established channels or any other channel for that matter runs counter to its public statements. Ultimately here, actions speak louder than words.
QUESTION: And can I ask about North Korea or —
MR PATEL: Why don’t we work through, and we’ll come back —
MR PATEL: — to North Korea.
QUESTION: Two follow-ups on both of those topics.
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: So first of all, it’s been – critics of the decision to grant the crown prince immunity, or to determine he does have immunity in this case, have accused the administration of slow-walking the process, which in the duration of that time the crown prince was able to take on the title of prime minister. I just want to say, was there any kind of delay on behalf of the State Department and did the determination – or did taking on the title of prime minister – was there any kind of coordination between Saudi Arabia and the State Department over that topic?
MR PATEL: So, first, I will let the Department of Justice speak to the legal sequencing and the timeline. I don’t have anything to offer on that. But what I would reiterate again is that what this designation comes from – it comes from the crown prince’s role as prime minister, as head of government. And what I want to be very clear about is that it has no bearing on the merits of the case. It has no bearing on the bilateral relationship. It has no bearing on our view of the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which this administration has taken action and has taken verifiable steps as it relates to – Secretary Blinken has condemned it, President Biden has condemned it. In fact, one of the very first visits that Secretary Blinken made to this briefing room was to discuss the Intelligence Community’s report on Mr. Khashoggi’s brutal killing. And all of these things continue to be true. And this designation stems from the fact that he is a head of government, which is consistent, long-standing international law, and they have no bearings on the bilateral relationship, on our views of the relationship, and no bearings on the merits of the case as well.
And as I mentioned to Matt, this immunity only applies to the crown prince. It does not impact other defendants in this case.
QUESTION: Now, critics have also said that the administration didn’t need to weigh in on this. Is that your understanding? Or is it that it was mandatory?
MR PATEL: So a federal court requested the government’s legal position, and so the Department of Justice provided it. And I will note again that immunity – the immunity determination is based on longstanding and well-established principles of common law, including customary international law. I will note that this is normal practice, and this is something that has been applied consistently across administrations. And it is something also that we expect other countries to practice with the United States as well.
QUESTION: And just really quickly on Brittney Griner, is it still the State Department’s view that the involvement of outside parties, like the Richardson Center, is counterproductive to efforts to secure her freedom and of Paul Whelan’s?
MR PATEL: What I will – what I will say, Shannon, is that there exist appropriate channels to have these negotiations and to have these discussions. A substantial proposal was made earlier this summer through those appropriate channels, through the channels that were determined by the two governments. And those continue to be the best avenues for this – for this to come to a resolution as well.
QUESTION: Vedant, thank you so much. A quick follow-up on the MBS. And then if you come back to me later —
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: — on a different question, I would appreciate that. You made your point clear that you don’t view this episode, this legal determination, as a departure of President’s campaign promise to punish Saudi Government on this case. But like it or not, the fact is that you are letting MBS off the hook just because he is head of state. How can you assure the Ukrainians and others that you’re not going to apply the same legal determination framework to Putin, who is right now conducting genocide against Ukrainian people as we speak?
MR PATEL: Well, Alex, what we’re speaking about today is this specific case and this specific designation regarding the crown prince. I do not want to get ahead of any future legal actions or any future things that might take place. But what I will reiterate is that this is an immunity that is based on longstanding and well-established principles of common law, including customary international law, and it is extended due to – to those who are in roles of heads of states, heads of government, or foreign ministers while they are in office, and that is normal practice. And I’m just not going to speculate on how this might have bearing on other matters in the world.
Go ahead. Dylan in the back.
QUESTION: Yeah. So it’s been a month or so now since we were told that there’s going to be a re-evaluation of the relationship with the Saudis given the OPEC episode. This seemingly is kind of the first big incident that’s occurred between you and the Saudis since then, and it’s not seeming to be holding them accountable; it’s seeming to be letting them, as was just said, off the hook for this. Do we have any update on the re-evaluation of that relationship? Any consequences? Are there any other avenues you’re going to pursue since this one is seemingly legally closed off to —
MR PATEL: Well, Dylan, I will just reiterate again that this determination is not a reflection of the merits of the case, and it is not a reflection of the bilateral relationship or the state of relations between our two countries. And our consultations with members of Congress, with allies and partners in the region as it relates to our bilateral relationship are ongoing. Following the OPEC+ decision, the President was very clear that a re-evaluation of the relationship is required, and that continues to be ongoing. And we of course will have more to offer on that in the – in the time ahead.
But the news from overnight – again, I want to reiterate – is a legal determination stemming from the crown prince’s role as the head of government. It is not a reflection of the status of relationships. It is not a reflection on the merits of the case. And again, it is not a reflection of our views of the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir. Sir, regarding immunity to MBS, don’t you think it’s a license to kill handed over to the head of states of different countries around the world, that you can kill anybody anywhere, even here in United States, because you have the immunity?
MR PATEL: That is not what I would take away from this. This – again, to not sound like a broken record, but this has nothing to do with the merits of the case. And I will note that Secretary Blinken, President Biden, we have condemned the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The President raised this directly with the crown prince during his visit in July. He raised it with the king during his visit in July. And as I said responding to Dylan, we are actively re-evaluating the relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
I will also note that we have taken direct action as well. We have frozen offensive arms sales. Through the Intelligence Community we released a report on Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal killing. We have imposed visa bans on nearly 80 Saudi officials. We have sanctioned Saudi officials and entities, including the royal court’s Rapid Intervention Force. And I will note, as I was responding to Matt, that this designation applies only to the crown prince and not to the others who are defendants in the case. This has nothing to do with the merits of the case at all.
QUESTION: And normally when any head of state is involved in the brutal murder or the killing of any person, they usually deal with this domestically, manipulating the system, buying the justice system. It’s for sale for – it’s for sale in many countries. But they always have the fear of the international powers like United Nations or United States, who always raise voices for human rights, religious freedom, freedom of speech. But that fear no more is there.
MR PATEL: Those values continue to be at the center of this administration and they continue to be at the center of our foreign policy. I will reiterate again that this designation is unrelated to that, and it is rooted in the crown prince’s role as the head of government, and it is rooted in a longstanding, well-established practice of applying these principles to heads of state, heads of government, and foreign ministers. That’s what this is about. This is not a reflection on those issues. Those issues are important to President Biden, to Secretary Clinton, and they – Secretary Blinken, and they are at the cornerstone of our foreign policy.
And again, this does not – is not a reflection on the merits of the case or a reflection on the – our views on the events that were transpired. That was very clear in the statements that we’ve offered, it was very clear in the statements our colleagues at the White House and the National Security Council offered, and it was very clear from the legal filing as well.
QUESTION: This morning, John Kirby in his press conference admitted that relations between United States and Saudi Arabia are very tense. So it looks like to trim that tense level, United States granted immunity to MBS.
MR PATEL: I cannot reiterate or find a different way to say this. This decision that was filed yesterday is not about the bilateral relationship or a reflection on the status of relations. It is a legal determination that flows from the crown prince’s role as the head of government. It is not about the bilateral relationship.
And I would agree with Admiral Kirby, and that is why the President in recent weeks has asked this administration and his team to re-evaluate the relationship. And that is ongoing. That work is ongoing, and we’re continuing to engage with our allies and partners. We’re engaging with members of Congress. We’re engaging with partners in the region, and that work remains ongoing.
QUESTION: So I just want to take this a step – so do you regard – related to this, kind of – do you regard Maduro as the head of state of Venezuela?
MR PATEL: We do not.
QUESTION: Or head of government?
MR PATEL: We do not.
QUESTION: Okay. So he would not get the same kind of treatment —
MR PATEL: I, again, don’t want to talk about a hypothetical court case, but correct.
QUESTION: Well, you just did. Kim Jong-un?
MR PATEL: Matt, I don’t think I’m in a place to go through a litany list of world officials.
QUESTION: Well, I’m just curious who is regarded as – because there are a lot of people who don’t think that the veneer of the appointment of being the prime minister really confers head of state status – or sorry, head of government status on MBS.
MR PATEL: That is —
QUESTION: And so you decide when you – as you just said with Maduro, when or whether or not you want to actually regard someone as a head of – legitimate head of state or head of government, right?
MR PATEL: That —
QUESTION: You don’t regard Maduro as one, so what’s the – but you do regard MBS as one?
MR PATEL: This —
QUESTION: What about Assad? Isn’t he a head of state, a head of government?
MR PATEL: This was an appointment that was made to the crown prince earlier this year. It was from a government and country we recognize. We also, Matt – it’s worth noting we do not determine world leaders and the governments that various countries operate under. I don’t have any assessment to offer on that. What I can say about this case is that this is rooted from his role as a prime minister, as a head of government, and this is consistent and it is a principle that’s applied to other heads of state, other heads of governments, and foreign ministers as well.
QUESTION: Okay. So Bashar Assad would get the similar immunity?
MR PATEL: I suspect not.
QUESTION: You suspect not? So even though you don’t have an embassy in – open in Damascus right now, you still recognize – you don’t recognize Bashar Assad as —
MR PATEL: Look, Matt, I’m not here to talk about hypotheticals or get into —
QUESTION: But I’m not asking you for a hypothetical —
MR PATEL: You kind of are. You —
QUESTION: But, I mean, you guys opened the door to this by giving your opinion about, one, quote/unquote, “head of government.” So now I’m – so I don’t think it’s illegitimate or out of line to ask about other heads of state or heads of government and whether they would be afforded the same kind of immunity.
MR PATEL: What I can say, Matt, without getting into a litany of various officials across the world, is that this is not the first time that the United States has done this. It is a longstanding and consistent line of effort. It has been applied to a number of heads of state previously. Some examples: President Aristide in Haiti in 1993, President Mugabe in Zimbabwe in 2001, Prime Minister Modi in India in 2014, and President Kabila in the DRC in 2018. This is a consistent practice that we have afforded to heads of state, heads of government, and foreign ministers.
QUESTION: But none of them have murdered a journalist and —
MR PATEL: Pardon me?
QUESTION: But none of them have involved in the murdering of journalist, U.S. resident —
MR PATEL: Again, Alex, this is not a reflection of the merits of the case or a reflection of our views on Mr. Khashoggi’s brutal murder. This is a reflection of a legal designation that flows from the crown prince’s role as the head of government.
QUESTION: A quick question on Libya. Just on the Greek foreign minister travel to Tripoli – and refused to get off the plane and meet with Libyan foreign minister – he was physically there – and instead he traveled to and met with Khalifa Haftar, an alleged war criminal backed by Russia. What do you make of the Greek Government’s action that faced a diplomatic protest by the UN-backed government in Libya?
MR PATEL: Did you say the – I didn’t hear you – the Greek Government?
MR PATEL: So I have not seen that reporting; I will have to get back to you on that specifically. But what I can say is that we view Greece as an indispensable partner and a key NATO Ally to the United States, and Greece plays a critical role in defending NATO’s southeastern flank. And today, together, the U.S. and Greece are advancing our shared goals for not just their immediate region but for Europe more broadly.
QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up on —
MR PATEL: Sure, go ahead.
QUESTION: Is it in line with the United States Government’s policy that the Greek Government is backing Haftar in Benghazi rather than the UN-backed government in Tripoli? Is that in line with your policies?
MR PATEL: What I would just say, as I don’t have any specific reaction to offer, is that Greece is an indispensable partner and a key NATO Ally to the United States, and it plays an important role in protecting NATO’s southeastern flank but also helping the United States achieve its goals for the immediate Mediterranean region but also Europe more broadly.
Goyal, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir. My question is on U.S.-India relations. Secretary Blinken have very good relations with many foreign ministers, and they can pick up the phone and call to each other. Is the same thing with India’s foreign minister Dr. Jaishankar?
MR PATEL: Absolutely. The Secretary had the opportunity to host External Affairs Minister Jaishankar here at the State Department a number of weeks ago, where they had the opportunity to speak to you all. He also had the opportunity to have a bilateral engagement with him on the margins of the ASEAN Summit. India is an invaluable partner, not just in the region but as it relates to a lot of the United States’s shared priorities across the world. And the Secretary and External Affairs Minister Jaishankar remain in close touch as they need to.
Daphne, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir.
QUESTION: Oh sorry. Did you say me?
MR PATEL: Yeah, go ahead. Yeah.
QUESTION: Okay. Is the United States looking to convene the UN Security Council on North Korea’s ICBM launch?
MR PATEL: I don’t have any specific actions to preview and certainly don’t want to get ahead of our colleagues in New York, Daphne. But what I can say is that we condemn the DPRK’s ballistic missile launch that took place yesterday. According to Republic of Korea and Japanese press reports, this appears to be the eighth intercontinental ballistic missile launch by the DPRK this year. This test follows the DPRK’s launch of a short-range ballistic missile on November 16th and an earlier intercontinental ballistic missile on November 2nd, as well as its recent reckless launches of missiles that landed dangerously close to the Republic of Korea.
These threaten regional and global stability, and they are a violation of a number of UN Security Council resolutions that were unanimously adopted by the council. And we will continue to consult closely with our allies and partners, including the Republic of Korea and Japan, in the region, and we call on the DPRK to abandon its provocative behavior and engage in meaningful diplomacy.
QUESTION: And after President Biden met with Xi Jinping, do you have any reason to believe that China is more willing to support additional sanctions on North Korea?
MR PATEL: I think I touched on this a little bit earlier this week, but President Biden in his bilateral engagement with President Xi raised concerns about the DPRK’s provocative behavior and noted all members of the international community, including the PRC, they have a vested interest in encouraging the DPRK to act responsibly. The PRC has a responsibility to make clear to the DPRK that Pyongyang should not engage in unlawful nuclear or ballistic missile tests. And together we must limit the DPRK’s ability to advance its unlawful ballistic missile and weapons of mass destruction program.
As it relates to the United States, our goal continues to be quite clear that we – the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and we remain prepared to engage in serious and sustained diplomacy to make tangible progress towards that end.
Go ahead, Alex.
QUESTION: Thanks so much. I want to go back to the Ukraine report you started this conference with —
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: — on accountability for war crimes. What is the next step on this? You mentioned 220 victims have been identified. And is the topic being discussed? I know you – I understand there’s a meeting going on at State with the ICC prosecutor. Is this one of the subjects of the meeting?
MR PATEL: I don’t have a specific subject of topics for that specific meeting, Alex. But what I would say is that the United States is supporting a range of efforts to document and pursue accountability for war crimes and other atrocities being committed by members of Russia’s forces in Ukraine. This conflict observatory that I mentioned at the beginning provides a platform to independently document, verify, and disseminate open-source information on likely human rights violations and abuses, war crimes, and other atrocities being allegedly committed by Russian forces. This information is meant to be collected and preserved consistent for international standards for use in ongoing and future accountability efforts, including any potential civil and criminal legal processes.
QUESTION: You mentioned the U.S. is committed to holding those responsible to account. How? That’s the question.
MR PATEL: Like I said, we have a number of lines of effort, and then we are supporting a range of efforts to document and pursue accountability for war crimes and atrocities committed by Russian forces in Ukraine.
Go ahead, Dylan, in the back.
QUESTION: Yeah, not to beat a dead horse, but just one more follow-up on the immunity question.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: So I mean, do you guys – you said just now that you guys don’t choose who leads governments around the world. It’s obviously true. But I mean, you do choose on some level who you’re recognizing as heads of state. I mean, presumably, the president of Taiwan would not be immune because you don’t recognize Taiwan as an independent state. You said Maduro, not immune, for example, Assad. But the crown prince, now prime minister, is immune. I mean, aren’t you guys making a value judgment at some level as far as who you’re recognizing as heads of state, even though you, as you said, are technically recognizing who runs governments around the world? Are you not deciding that, I should say?
MR PATEL: Dylan, the U.S. has a bilateral relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is a country we recognize, and the crown prince was appointed in this role in a – by the country. And so what this determination does is, again, a legal one. It is not a reflection of the bilateral relationship. It is stemming from longstanding practices that are affronted to heads of state, heads of government, and foreign ministers. And this is an unbroken practice, and it is also something that we expect other countries to hold to the United States as well.
All right, everybody, thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:38 p.m.)
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