The Biden administration declared on Thursday that the high office held by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince should shield him from lawsuits for his role in the killing of a US-based journalist, a reversal from Joe Biden’s impassioned campaign statements of Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the brutal killing.
The administration said the prince’s official position should give him immunity in the lawsuit filed by the fiancee of slain Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and by the rights group he founded, Democracy for the Arab World Now.
The request is non-binding and a judge will ultimately decide whether to grant immunity. But it is bound to anger human rights activists and many US lawmakers, coming as Saudi Arabia has stepped up jailing and other reprisals against peaceful critics at home and abroad and has cut oil production, a move seen as undermining the efforts of the US and its allies. to punish Russia for its war on Ukraine.
The State Department on Thursday called the administration’s decision to seek to shield the Saudi crown prince from US courts in the Khashoggi killing “purely a legal decision.”
Saudi officials killed Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. They are believed to have dismembered him, although his remains have never been found.
US intelligence concluded that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince had approved the killing of the widely known and respected journalist, who had written critically of Prince Mohammed’s harsh ways of silencing those he considered rivals or critics.
The Biden administration’s statement on Thursday noted visa restrictions and other sanctions it had imposed on lower-ranking Saudi officials in the death.
“From the earliest days of this administration, the United States government has expressed its grave concern about the responsibility of Saudi agents for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder,” the State Department said. Its statement did not mention the crown prince’s own alleged role.
Biden as a candidate promised to make a “pariah” of Saudi rulers over the murder of Khashoggi in 2018.
“I think it was pure murder,” Biden said in a 2019 CNN town hall, as a candidate.
“And I think we should have nailed it like that. I said publicly then that we should treat it that way and that there should be consequences for how we deal with them — that power.”
But Biden as president has sought to ease tensions with the kingdom, including bumping fists with Prince Mohammed on a trip to the kingdom in July, as the United States works to persuade Saudi Arabia to undo a series of oil production cuts.
Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, and DAWN sued the crown prince, his top aides and others in Washington federal court for their alleged roles in Khashoggi’s killing. Saudi Arabia says the prince had no direct role in the murder.
— Hatice Cengiz خديجة (@mercan_resifi) November 18, 2022
“It is beyond ironic that President Biden has single-handedly ensured that MBS can escape accountability when it was President Biden who promised the American people that he would do everything in his power to hold him accountable,” said DAWN Director Sarah Leah Whitson. in a statement, using the prince’s acronym.
Biden had ruled out in February 2021 that the US government would impose punishment on Prince Mohammed himself for the killing of Khashoggi, a resident of the Washington area.
Biden, speaking after he approved the release of a declassified version of intelligence findings on Prince Mohammed’s role in the assassination, argued at the time that there was no precedent for the United States to go against the leader of a strategic partner.
The US military has long protected Saudi Arabia from outside enemies, in exchange for Saudi Arabia keeping global oil markets afloat.
“It is impossible to read the Biden administration’s moves today as anything more than a capitulation to Saudi pressure tactics, including cutting oil production to twist our arms to recognize MBS’s bogus immunity ploy,” Whitson said.
A federal judge in Washington had given the US government until midnight on Thursday to express an opinion on the claim by the crown prince’s lawyers that Prince Mohammed’s senior position makes him legally immune in the case.
The Biden administration also had the option of not speaking out either way.
Sovereign immunity, a concept with roots in international law, means that states and their officials are protected from certain legal proceedings in other foreign states’ domestic courts.
Upholding the concept of “sovereign immunity” helps ensure that U.S. leaders, in turn, don’t have to worry about being dragged to foreign courts to face lawsuits in other countries, the State Department said.
Human rights advocates had argued that the Biden administration would embolden Prince Mohammed and other authoritarian leaders around the world in more rights abuses if it supported the crown prince’s claim that his high office shielded him from prosecution.
Prince Mohammed serves as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler in place of his aging father, King Salman. The Saudi king in September also temporarily transferred his title of prime minister — a title normally held by the Saudi monarch — to Prince Mohammed. Critics called it an attempt to bolster Mohammed’s immunity claim.