WASHINGTON (AP) – The Biden administration says the high office of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should protect him from a lawsuit over his role in the assassination of a US-based journalist and a reversal of Joe Biden’s passionate denunciations of the prince during the campaign do the brutal killing.
The government has backed a claim for legal immunity from Prince Mohammed – Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler who also recently assumed the title of prime minister – from a lawsuit brought by the fiancé of slain Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and submitted by the rights group Democracy for the Arab World Now founded by Khashoggi.
“Jamal died again today,” Khashoggi’s fiancee Hatice Cengiz tweeted after the US filed its lawsuit late Thursday.
The US government’s determination of immunity for Prince Mohammed, sometimes known as MBS, is non-binding and a judge will ultimately decide whether to grant immunity. But it angered rights activists and risked backlash from Democratic lawmakers. The US move came as Saudi Arabia stepped up detention and other retaliatory measures against peaceful critics at home and abroad and cut oil production, a move seen as undercutting efforts by the US and its allies to support Russia for its war against to punish Ukraine.
The State Department on Thursday described the government’s call to protect the Saudi crown prince in US courts in the 2018 assassination of Khashoggi as a “purely legal decision.” It cited what it described as a longstanding precedent.
Despite its recommendation to the court, the State Department said in its filing late Thursday that it “has no opinion on the merits of the present lawsuit and reiterates its unequivocal condemnation of the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”
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 has concluded that the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia authorized the assassination of the well-known and respected journalist who had written critical of Prince Mohammed’s harsh ways of silencing those he considered rivals or critics considered.
The Biden administration’s statement on Thursday noted visa restrictions and other penalties it imposed on lower-ranking Saudi officials in cases of death.
“Since the early days of this administration, the United States government has expressed grave concern about the responsibility of Saudi agents for the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi,” the State Department said. His statement made no mention of the Crown Prince’s alleged role.
Biden, as the Democratic presidential nominee, vowed to “outcast” Saudi rulers over the 2018 assassination of Khashoggi.
“I think it was downright 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 at the time that we should treat it this way and there should be consequences for how we use that power.”
But Biden as president has sought to ease tensions with the kingdom, including fist-slinging with Prince Mohammed on a trip to the kingdom in July while the US works to persuade Saudi Arabia to reverse a series of oil production cuts make.
Khashoggi’s fiancee and DAWN are suing the crown prince, his top assistants and others in federal court in Washington for their alleged role in Khashoggi’s assassination. Saudi Arabia says the prince played no direct role in the killing.
“It is beyond ironic that President Biden has single-handedly assured MBS that MBS can evade accountability, despite President Biden’s pledge to the American people to do whatever it takes to hold him accountable,” said DAWN executive director Sarah Leah Whitson, in a statement using the Prince’s acronym.
Biden ruled out in February 2021 that the US government would punish Prince Mohammed himself in the killing of Washington-area resident Khashoggi. Speaking after authorizing the release of a declassified version of intelligence findings into Prince Mohammed’s role in the assassination, Biden argued there was no precedent at the time for the US to crack down on a strategic partner’s leader.
The US military has long protected Saudi Arabia from external enemies in exchange for Saudi Arabia keeping global oil markets afloat.
“It’s impossible to read the Biden administration’s move today as anything more than a capitulation to Saudi pressure tactics, including cutting oil production to twist our arms to acknowledge MBS’s fake immunity ploy,” Whitson said.
A federal judge in Washington had given the US government until midnight Thursday to comment on the crown prince’s lawyers’ claim that Prince Mohammed’s high official standing made him legally immune in the case.
The Biden administration also had the option of not expressing an opinion either way.
Sovereign immunity, a concept rooted in international law, states that states and their officials are protected from some legal proceedings in the domestic courts of other states.
Upholding the concept of “sovereign immunity” helps ensure that American leaders, in turn, do not have to fear being dragged into courts abroad to face lawsuits in other countries, the State Department said.
Human rights activists had argued that if the Biden administration backed the crown prince’s claim that his high office shields him from prosecution, it would encourage further abuses by Prince Mohammed and other authoritarian leaders around the world.
Prince Mohammed acts as the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia in place of his elderly father, King Salman. The Saudi king also temporarily transferred his title of prime minister – a title normally held by the Saudi monarch – to Prince Mohammed in September. Critics called it an attempt to bolster Muhammad’s claim to immunity.
Eric Tucker and Aamer Madhani contributed.