The Biden administration said on Thursday evening that the official position of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince should grant him immunity from lawsuits over his alleged role in the brutal killing of a US-based journalist.

The request is controversial after President Biden promised “consequences” on his campaign for Saudi officials following the 2018 death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s girlfriend, and Democracy for the Arab World Now have filed a lawsuit against Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, over their role in Khashoggi’s murder 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 US courts in Khashoggi’s killing “purely a legal determination”, citing “a long-standing precedent”.

BIDEN CONFRONTS SAUDI CROWN PRINCE ON KHASHOGGI KILLING

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud during the G20 summit in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia on Tuesday, November 15, 2022.
(Mast Irham/Pool Photo via AP)

Rooted in international law, sovereign immunity protects states and their officials from certain legal proceedings in the domestic courts of other foreign states. The State Department said backing the concept helps ensure American leaders don’t have to worry about being dragged into foreign courts to face lawsuits in other countries.

The Biden administration’s immunity request is non-binding and will ultimately be decided by a judge, but it is expected to anger human rights activists and many US 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 backed the crown prince’s claim that his high office protected him from the prosecution.

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Despite the recommendation to the court, the State Department allegedly said it “did not take a position on the merits of the present case and reiterate its unequivocal condemnation of the atrocious assassination of Jamal Khashoggi”.

Khashoggi, an internationally known and respected journalist, was shot dead by Saudi officials on October 2, 2018 after he publicly criticized the crown prince’s harsh methods of silencing his rivals or critics. He is believed to have been dismembered, but his remains have not been found.

According to the AP, the US intelligence community has concluded that the crown prince has given approval to Khashoggi’s killing, despite the country’s claim that he was not directly involved.

People hold posters of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, near the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, October 2, 2020, marking the second anniversary of his death.

People hold posters of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, near the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, October 2, 2020, marking the second anniversary of his death.
(AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

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The Biden administration’s statement noted visa restrictions and other sanctions meted out to lower-ranking Saudi officials over Khashoggi’s death, but did not mention the crown prince’s alleged role.

“Since the early days of this administration, the US government has expressed its grave concerns about the responsibility of Saudi agents for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” the State Department said, according to the AP.

During his campaign for the presidency in 2019, President Biden vowed to “make a pariah” of Saudi rulers over the brutal deaths.

“I think it was outright murder,” Biden said in a 2019 CNN town hall. “And I think we should have nailed it like this. to how we handle 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 is beyond irony that President Biden single-handedly ensured that MBS can escape accountability when it was President Biden who promised the American people that he would do anything to hold them accountable,” Whitson said, using the acronym for prince.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia takes his seat before a working lunch at the G20 summit, Tuesday Nov. 15, 2022, in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia takes his seat before a working lunch at the G20 summit, Tuesday Nov. 15, 2022, in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia.
(Leon Neal/Pool photo via AP)

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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 reverse a series of oil production cuts.

In February 2021, the president said the US government would not impose punishment on Prince Mohammed himself for Khashoggi’s death. After releasing a declassified version of the intelligence community’s findings about MBS’s role, Biden argued there was no precedent for the United States to move against a strategic partner’s leader.

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 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 bogus immunity ploy,” Whitson said. .

President Biden was welcomed by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Royal Palace of Alsalam in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 15.  The prince reportedly teased Biden privately and said he was not impressed with him.

President Biden was welcomed by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Royal Palace of Alsalam in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 15. The prince reportedly teased Biden privately and said he was not impressed with him.
(Royal Court of Saudi Arabia / Handout / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The administration had until midnight on Thursday to comment 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 is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia in place of his elderly father, King Salman.

In September, the Saudi king temporarily transferred his title of prime minister to Prince Mohammed, a move critics said served to bolster Mohammed’s immunity bid.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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