The Biden administration has ruled that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should be granted immunity in a case brought against him by the fiancee of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who the administration says was killed on the prince’s orders.
At the State Department’s request, Justice Department lawyers filed the lawsuit because bin Salman was recently appointed prime minister of Saudi Arabia and could be granted immunity as a foreign head of government, the filing said. It was filed late Thursday night, shortly before a court deadline for the Justice Department to present its opinion in court on the immunity issue and the prince’s other arguments to dismiss the suit.
“Mohammed bin Salman, the prime minister of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is the head of government and is therefore immune from this lawsuit,” the statement said, calling the killing “heinous.”
Such a decision is likely to provoke an angry reaction. The White House had hoped that President Joe Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia in July would put the strained US-Saudi relationship back on track, but relations have continued to deteriorate since then.
The relationship is being reassessed, the White House said, after Saudi Arabia-led OPEC+ cut oil production, which the administration saw as a direct affront to the United States. Members of Congress, already outraged by the oil cuts and calling for a reassessment, are likely to become even more outraged if the prince is granted immunity.
Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancee, and DAWN, a Washington-based human rights organization founded by the late journalist, in 2020. In October, it initially sued bin Salman and 28 others in federal district court in Washington. They say the hit squad “kidnapped, bound, drugged, tortured and killed” Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, before dismembering his body. His remains were never found.
Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of DAWN, called the immunity request a “shocking result” and a “huge concession” to Saudi Arabia.
“It’s really beyond ironic that President Biden basically guaranteed impunity for Mohammed bin Salman, which is the exact opposite of what he promised to do to bring Jamal Khashoggi’s killers to justice,” Whitson told CNN.
In the report of the US intelligence community on the murder of Khashoggi, published in 2021. in February, when Biden took office, bin Salman is said to have approved a capture-or-kill operation on a journalist that ended with his killing and dismemberment.
Bin Salman has denied the allegations and sought immunity from prosecution, arguing that various government and royal positions granted him immunity from the jurisdiction of US courts.
But as heir to the throne, bin Salman was not entitled to sovereign immunity, which normally only extends to a head of state, head of government or foreign minister, of which bin Salman was neither.
Then, just days before the Biden administration was due to consider immunity last month, bin Salman was promoted to prime minister by his father, King Salman, who would normally hold the post.
It was a “trick” to secure so-called head of state immunity, DAWN Whitson said, after the Justice Department asked for a delay.
Now that bin Salman is prime minister, “the government should recommend that he be entitled to immunity,” said law professor William Dodge of the University of California, Davis School of Law, who has previously written that the prince is not entitled to immunity.
“It’s almost automatic,” Dodge said, “I think that’s why he was appointed prime minister to get out of it.”
The State Department was not required to establish immunity, but the court invited it to do so. The spokesman said their request to grant bin Salman immunity was based on longstanding common and international law and not a reflection of current diplomatic ties or efforts.
“This motion for immunity does not reflect an assessment of the merits of the case. It doesn’t say anything about the broader policy or the state of the relationship,” a department spokesman told CNN. “It was a purely legal decision.”
The Saudi embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Bin Salman also claimed immunity in a case brought against him by former Saudi counter-terrorism official Saad Aljabri, who accused the prince of sending a hit squad to kill him in Canada days after Khashoggi’s murder. That case was dismissed by the same court for other reasons.
“After breaking its commitment to punish MBS for Khashoggi’s murder, the Biden administration not only shielded MBS from accountability in US courts, but actually gave him a license to kill more detractors and announced that he would never be brought to justice,” Aljabri’s son, Khalid. , told CNN on Thursday.
The White House was widely criticized for Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia in July, when the president clumsily punched the crown prince, who he said was still responsible for Khashoggi’s murder.
Biden said he brought up the killing at the beginning of their meeting and that the prince continued to deny responsibility.
“I was straight and direct when discussing it. I made my point clear,” Biden said.
in 2021 A four-page report released by the US intelligence community claims that 15 people in the Saudi Arabian team, which in 2018 arrived in Istanbul in October when Khashoggi was killed, were members associated with the Center for Saudi Studies and Media Affairs (CSMARC) at the Royal Court. led by a close adviser to bin Salman, as well as “seven members of Muhammad bin Salman’s elite personal security detail known as the Rapid Intervention Force.”
The report notes that bin Salman viewed Khashoggi as a threat to the kingdom “and broadly endorsed the use of violent means if necessary to silence him.”
The intelligence report said they had no visibility into when Saudi Arabia decided to harm the father of five. “While Saudi officials had planned an unspecified operation against Khashoggi in advance, we do not know how far in advance Saudi officials decided to harm him,” it said.
Last month, on the fourth anniversary of Khashoggi’s death, DAWN demanded that the Biden administration declassify and release the full intelligence report on his murder.
Khashoggi’s fiancee, Cengiz, says that when Khashoggi tried to get the documents he needed to get married at the embassy in Washington, officials “created an opportunity to kill him.”
They said the only place he could get the necessary documents was the consulate in Istanbul. Two weeks before the appointment in 2018. On Oct. 2, the day he was killed, Khashoggi and Cengiz were married in a religious Islamic ceremony, the lawsuit said.
“The administration’s decision to encourage the courts to uphold MBS’s sovereign immunity is another disappointing chapter in the failure to hold the Saudi leadership accountable for the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” said a senior congressional Democratic aide. “Actions like this run counter to the administration’s empty assurances of accountability and contradict our own intelligence assessments of MBS’s involvement.”