The Biden administration has determined that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should be granted immunity in a case brought against him by the fiancée of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who the administration says has was assassinated at the direction of the prince.
A court filing has been filed by Justice Department lawyers at the request of the State Department, as bin Salman was recently named Saudi Prime Minister and therefore enjoys immunity as a foreign head of government , as required. It was filed late Thursday evening, just before the deadline set by the court for the Ministry of Justice to give its opinion in court on the issue of immunity and other arguments the prince has made to have it dismissed. the trial.
“Mohammed bin Salman, the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is the incumbent head of government and therefore is immune from this prosecution,” the filing reads, while calling the killing “heinous. “.
The decision is likely to provoke an angry reaction. The White House had hoped that President Joe Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia in July would put the troubled relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia back on track, but since then the relationship has steadily deteriorated.
The relationship is being reassessed, the White House said, following a Saudi-led OPEC+ oil production cut that the administration viewed as a direct affront to the United States. . Members of Congress, already exasperated by the oil cut and calling for a reassessment, will likely only be angrier if the prince is granted immunity.
Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancee, and the Washington-based human rights organization the late journalist founded, DAWN, originally filed a lawsuit against bin Salman and 28 others in October 2020 before federal district court in Washington, DC. They allege the assassination team “kidnapped, tied up, drugged, tortured and murdered” Khashoggi from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, then dismembered his body. His remains have never been found.
DAWN executive director Sarah Leah Whitson called the immunity request a “shocking result” and a “massive concession” to Saudi Arabia.
“It is truly beyond ironic that President Biden has essentially given an assurance of impunity to Mohammad bin Salman, which is the exact opposite of what he promised to do to hold down the killers of Jamal Khashoggi. responsible,” Whitson told CNN.
A US intelligence community report on Khashoggi’s murder released in February 2021 when Biden took office said bin Salman approved the operation to capture or kill the journalist, which ended by his murder and dismemberment.
Bin Salman denied the allegations and requested immunity from prosecution, saying his various governmental and royal positions gave him immunity and placed him beyond the jurisdiction of US courts.
But as crown prince, bin Salman was not entitled to sovereign immunity which would normally only include a head of state, head of government or foreign minister, whom bin Salman was not. .
Then, just days before the Biden administration was due to weigh in on the immunity issue last month, bin Salman was promoted to prime minister by his father, King Salman, who would normally hold the post.
It was a “ploy” to secure the so-called head of state’s immunity, DAWN’s Whitson said, after which the Justice Department asked for a delay.
Now that bin Salman is prime minister, “the government should recommend that he be eligible for immunity,” said law professor William Dodge of the University of California’s Davis Law School, who previously wrote that the prince was not entitled to immunity.
“It’s almost automatic,” Dodge said, “I think that’s what he was made prime minister for, is to get by.”
The State Department was not required to rule on immunity but was asked to do so by the court. A spokesperson said their request for immunity for bin Salman is based on long-standing common and international law, rather than a reflection of current diplomatic relations or efforts.
“This suggestion of immunity does not reflect an assessment on the merits of the case. It says nothing about broader policy or the state of the relationship,” a department spokesperson told CNN. “It was purely a legal decision.”
The Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Bin Salman had also claimed immunity in a case brought against him by former Saudi counter-terrorism official Saad Aljabri, who accused the prince of sending a squad to kill him in Canada just days after the murder of Khashoggi. This case was dismissed on other grounds by the same court.
“After breaking its pledge to punish MBS for Khashoggi’s assassination, the Biden administration not only shielded MBS from liability in US courts, but effectively issued him a license to kill more critics and said that he would never be held accountable,” Aljabri’s son Khalid said. , CNN told Thursday.
The White House was widely criticized for Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia in July, when the president clumsily punched the crown prince whom he said he held responsible for killing Khashoggi.
Biden said he brought up the murder at the start of their meeting and the prince continued to deny responsibility.
“I was candid and direct in discussing it. I made my point very clear,” Biden said.
The four-page US intelligence community report released in 2021 says the 15-person Saudi team that arrived in Istanbul in October 2018 when Khashoggi was killed included members associated with the Saudi Center for Studies and Affairs (CSMARC) at the Royal Court, led by a close adviser to bin Salman, as well as “seven members of Muhammad bin Salman’s elite personal protection group, known as the Rapid Reaction Force”.
The report noted that bin Salman viewed Khashoggi as a threat to the Kingdom “and widely supported the use of violent measures if necessary, to silence him”.
The intelligence report said they had no visibility on when the Saudis decided to harm the father of five. “Although Saudi officials planned an unspecified operation against Khashoggi in advance, we don’t know how far in advance Saudi officials decided to harm him,” he said.
Last month, on the fourth anniversary of Khashoggi’s death, DAWN called on the Biden administration to declassify and release the full intelligence report on his murder.
Khashoggi’s fiancée, Cengiz, claims that when Khashoggi tried to get the papers they needed to get married at the embassy in Washington, DC, officials “manufactured an opportunity to assassinate him.”
They told him the only place he could get the documents they needed was at the consulate in Istanbul, she said. Two weeks before his appointment on October 2, 2018, the day he was killed, Khashoggi and Cengiz were married in an Islamic religious ceremony, the lawsuit says.
“The administration’s decision to encourage the courts to uphold MBS’s sovereign immunity is another disappointing chapter in a series of failures to hold Saudi leaders accountable for the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” a senior official said. Democratic Congressman. “Actions like this contradict the administration’s hollow assurances of responsibility and run counter to our own intelligence assessments of MBS’s involvement.”