The Biden administration has decided that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should be granted immunity from a lawsuit brought against him by the fiancee of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who the administration says the prince was killed on the instructions of
The court filing was made by Justice Department lawyers at the State Department’s request because bin Salman was recently named Saudi prime minister and as a result is exempt from being a foreign head of government, the petition said. are eligible. It was filed late on Thursday night, just before the deadline for the court to give its views on the immunity question and other arguments made to dismiss the case.
“Mohammed bin Salman, the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is the current head of government and, accordingly, exempt from prosecution,” the filing reads, calling the killing “heinous.”
This decision is likely to provoke angry reactions. The White House had hoped that President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia in July would put the U.S.-Saudi Arabia moderate relationship back on track, but relations have been strained ever since.
The White House has said the relationship is being reassessed in the wake of Saudi-led OPEC+ oil production cuts, which the administration sees as a direct affront to the United States. Members of Congress, already outraged by the oil cuts and calling for a review, will likely only get angrier if Prince is granted immunity.
Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancee, and DAWN, a Washington-based human rights organization founded by the late journalist, initially sued bin Salman and 28 others in Washington, D.C., federal district court in October 2020. . They allege that the team of assassins “abducted, tied up, drugged, tortured and killed” Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and then dismembered his body. His remains have never been found.
Sarah Leah Whitson, DAWN’s executive director, called the waiver request a “surprising result” and a “massive concession” to Saudi Arabia.
“It is truly beyond ironic that President Biden has basically assured immunity for Mohammed bin Salman, the exact opposite of what he promised to hold accountable for the killers of Jamal Khashoggi,” Whitson said. told CNN.
A US intelligence community report on Khashoggi’s murder, published in February 2021 after Biden took office, suggested that bin Salman had approved a capture or kill operation against the journalist that ended with his murder and dismemberment. .
Bin Salman denied the allegations and sought immunity from prosecution, claiming that his various official and royal positions granted him immunity and placed him outside the jurisdiction of US courts.
But as crown prince, bin Salman was not entitled to the sovereign immunity that normally only included a head of state, head of government or foreign minister, none of whom was bin Salman.
Then, just days before the Biden administration weighed the question of immunity last month, bin Salman was replaced as prime minister by his father, King Salman, who would normally hold the post.
It was a “need” for the so-called head of state to get immunity, DAWN’s Whitson said, after which the Justice Department asked for a delay.
Now that bin Salman is prime minister, “the government should recommend that he is entitled to immunity,” said William Dodge, a law professor at the University of California Davis Law School who previously wrote that the prince is not entitled to immunity. .
“It’s almost automatic,” Dodge said, “I think that’s why he’s been appointed prime minister to get out of it.”
The State Department was not required to determine immunity but was invited by the Court to do so. A spokesman said their request to grant immunity to bin Salman was based on longstanding common and international law rather than a reflection of current diplomatic relations or efforts.
“This recommendation of immunity does not reflect an assessment on the merits of the case. It does not speak to broader policy or the state of the relationship,” a department spokesperson told CNN. “It was purely a legal decision.”
The Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Bin Salman also claimed immunity from a lawsuit against him by former Saudi counterterrorism official Saad al-Jabri, who accused the prince of sending a hit squad to kill Khashoggi in Canada days after he was killed. was The case was dismissed by the same court for other reasons.
“Having broken its pledge to punish MBS for Khashoggi’s murder, the Biden administration has not only shielded MBS from accountability in US courts, but effectively issued him a license to kill more opponents and declared that they will never be held accountable,” said Al-Jabri’s son, Khalid. , told CNN on Thursday.
The White House was widely criticized for Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia in July, when the president awkwardly fist-bumped the crown prince, who said he was still guilty of Khashoggi’s murder. are responsible.
Biden said he brought up the killing at the beginning of their meeting and that Prince continued to deny responsibility.
“I was direct and straightforward in discussing this. I made my view clear,” Biden said.
A four-page US intelligence community report released in 2021 said a 15-person Saudi team that arrived in Istanbul in October 2018 when Khashoggi was killed, including the Saudi Center for Studies at the Royal Court. and Media Affairs (CSMARC) members were also involved. led by a close adviser to bin Salman as well as “seven members of Mohammed bin Salman’s elite personal security detail, known as the Rapid Intervention Force.”
The report said bin Salman viewed Khashoggi as a threat to the kingdom and “supported the use of violent measures to silence him if necessary.”
The intelligence report said the Saudis did not have visibility into when they decided to harm the father of five. “Although the Saudi authorities had already planned an unspecified operation against Khashoggi, we do not know how far in advance the decision was made by the Saudi authorities to harm him”.
Last month, on the fourth anniversary of Khashoggi’s death, DAWN called on the Biden administration to release the full intelligence report on his murder.
Khashoggi’s fiancee Genghis alleged that when Khashoggi tried to get the papers he needed to get married at the embassy in Washington, D.C., authorities “gave him an opportunity to kill him.”
They told him that he could only get the required documents at the consulate in Istanbul. Two weeks before his appointment on October 2, 2018, the day he was killed, Khashoggi and Genghis were married in a religious Islamic ceremony, the lawsuit says.
“The administration’s decision to encourage the courts to uphold MBS’s sovereign immunity is another in a series of failures to hold the Saudi leadership accountable for the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” said a senior congressional Democratic aide. It’s a disappointing chapter.” “Such actions run counter to the administration’s hollow assurances of accountability and fly in the face of our own intelligence assessments of MBS’s involvement.”