The Biden administration declared Thursday night the official standing of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince should grant him immunity in lawsuits for his alleged role in the brutal killing of a U.S.-based journalist.
The request is a controversial one after President Biden promised “consequences” on his campaign trail 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 filed a lawsuit against Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, for their roles in the murder of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
According to the Associated Press, the State Department called the decision to try to protect the Saudi crown prince from U.S. courts in Khashoggi’s killing “purely a legal determination,” citing “longstanding precedent.”
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Rooted in international law, sovereign immunity protects states and their officials from some legal proceedings in other foreign states’ domestic courts. The State Department said upholding the concept helps ensure American leaders don’t have to worry about being hauled into foreign courts to face lawsuits in other countries.
The Biden administration’s request for immunity is non-binding and will ultimately be decided by a judge, but it is expected to anger human rights activists and many U.S. lawmakers, according to the AP.
Human rights advocates argued that Prince Mohammed and other authoritarian leaders around the world would be emboldened to commit more rights abuses if the Biden administration supported the crown prince’s claim that his high office shielded him from prosecution.
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Despite the recommendation to the court, the State Department reportedly said it “takes no view on the merits of the present suit and reiterates its unequivocal condemnation of the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”
Khashoggi, an internationally known and respected journalist, was killed by Saudi officials Oct. 2, 2018 after publicly criticizing the crown prince’s harsh methods of silencing his rivals or critics. It’s believed he was dismembered, but his remains have not been found.
According to the AP, the U.S. intelligence community concluded the crown prince gave the approval of Khashoggi’s killing, despite the country’s claim that he was not directly involved.
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The Biden administration’s statement did note visa restrictions and other penalties it handed out to lower-ranking Saudi officials in Khashoggi’s death, but it did not mention the crown prince’s alleged role.
“From the earliest days of this Administration, the United States Government has expressed its grave concerns regarding Saudi agents’ responsibility for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder,” the State Department said, according to the AP.
During his campaign for president in 2019, President Biden promised to “make a pariah” out of Saudi rulers over the brutal death.
“I think it was a flat-out murder,” Biden said in a 2019 CNN town hall. “And I think we should have nailed it as that. I publicly said at the time we should treat it that way and there should be consequences relating to how we deal with those — 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’s beyond ironic that President Biden has single-handedly assured MBS can escape accountability when it was President Biden who promised the American people he would do everything to hold him accountable,” Whitson said, using the prince’s acronym.
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Since taking office, Biden has tried to ease tensions with the kingdom as the U.S. tries to persuade Saudi Arabia to undo a series of oil production cuts.
In February 2021, the president said the U.S. government would not impose punishment on Prince Mohammed himself in Khashoggi’s death. After releasing a declassified version of the intelligence community’s findings on MBS’s role, Biden argued there was no precedent for the U.S. to move against the leader of a strategic partner.
The U.S. military has safeguarded Saudi Arabia from external enemies for a long time in exchange for them keeping the global oil markets afloat, the AP reported.
“It’s impossible to read the Biden administration’s move today as anything more than a capitulation to Saudi pressure tactics, including slashing oil output to twist our arms to recognize MBS’s fake immunity ploy,” Whitson said.
The administration had until midnight Thursday to express an opinion on the claim that the crown prince’s standing “renders him legally immune” in this case. There was also an option to not state any opinion.
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Prince Mohammed serves as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler in place of his aged father, King Salman.
In September, the Saudi king temporarily transferred his title of prime minister to Prince Mohammed, a move critics believed was to strengthen Mohammed’s immunity claim.