The Biden administration declared late Thursday that the official position of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince should grant him immunity from lawsuits over his alleged role in the brutal murder of a US-based journalist.
The request is controversial after President Biden promised “consequences” in his election campaign for Saudi officials following the 2018 death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancée, and Democracy for the Arab World Now have filed a lawsuit against Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, for their role in Khashoggi’s assassination at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
According to the Associated Press, the State Department called the decision to try to shield the Saudi crown prince from US courts in the Khashoggi murder “a purely legal determination,” citing “long-standing precedent.”
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Rooted in international law, sovereign immunity protects states and their officials from some legal proceedings in the domestic courts of other foreign states. The State Department said upholding the concept helps ensure that American leaders don’t have to worry about being taken to foreign courts to face lawsuits in other countries.
The Biden administration’s immunity request is not binding and will ultimately be decided by a judge, but it is expected to anger human rights activists and many US lawmakers, according to AP.
Human rights advocates argued that Prince Mohammed and other authoritarian leaders around the world would be encouraged to commit further rights abuses if the Biden administration backed the crown prince’s claim that his high position protected him from prosecution.
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Despite the recommendation to the court, the State Department reportedly said that it “has no opinion on the merits of this lawsuit and reiterates its unequivocal condemnation of the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”
Khashoggi, an internationally known and respected journalist, was assassinated by Saudi officials on October 2, 2018 after publicly criticizing the crown prince’s harsh methods to silence his rivals or critics. It is believed that he was dismembered, but his remains have not been found.
According to the AP, the US intelligence community concluded that the crown prince gave his approval to Khashoggi’s assassination, despite the country’s claim that he was not directly involved.
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The Biden administration’s statement pointed to visa restrictions and other sanctions it imposed on lower-ranking Saudi officials in Khashoggi’s death, but made no mention of the crown prince’s alleged role.
“Since the early days of this Administration, the United States government has expressed grave concern about the responsibility of Saudi agents in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” the State Department said, according to AP.
During his 2019 campaign for president, President Biden vowed to “pariah” the Saudi rulers over the brutal death.
“I think it was outright murder,” Biden said in a 2019 CNN town hall. “And I think we should have done it that way. I said publicly at the time that we should treat it that way and that there should be consequences related to how we We deal with that power.”
Sarah Leah Whitson, Head of Democracy for the Arab World Now, expressed her dissatisfaction with the president’s request in a statement on Thursday.
“It is beyond ironic that President Biden single-handedly ensured that MBS can shirk responsibility when it was President Biden who promised the American people that he would do everything possible to hold them accountable,” Whitson said, using the prince’s acronym.
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Since taking office, Biden has sought to ease tensions with the kingdom as the United States tries to persuade Saudi Arabia to roll back a series of oil production cuts.
In February 2021, the president said the US government would not punish Prince Mohammed himself for Khashoggi’s death. After publishing a declassified version of the intelligence community’s findings on the role of MBS, Biden argued that there was no precedent for the United States to move against the leader of a strategic partner.
The US military has long safeguarded Saudi Arabia from external enemies in exchange for keeping global oil markets afloat, the AP reported.
“It is impossible to read the move by the Biden administration today as anything more than a capitulation to Saudi pressure tactics, including cutting oil production to twist our arms and acknowledge MBS’s bogus immunity strategy,” Whitson said.
The administration had until midnight Thursday to express an opinion on the claim that the crown prince’s position “makes him legally immune” in this case. There was also an option to not express any opinion.
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Prince Mohammed serves as the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia in place of his aging father, King Salman.
In September, the Saudi king temporarily transferred his title of prime minister to Prince Mohammed, a move critics said strengthened Mohammed’s claim of immunity.