Senator Tom Cotton, R-Ark., supported the Biden administration’s argument that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was protected by sovereign immunity from lawsuits brought against him over the death of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi .
“What the government has decided this week to grant sovereign immunity to Mohammed bin Salman’ is in line with the practice and custom of litigation involving foreign heads of state,” Cotton said while appearing on Fox News Sunday.
Cotton’s comments come after the State Department said on Thursday that the administration’s determination that the Saudi leader had sovereign immunity from US courts in Khashoggi’s assassination is a “purely legal determination” with longstanding legal precedent.
The Arkansas senator agreed, saying it would have been “a big break from those customs not to grant that kind of immunity.”
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“What I would say is that Saudi Arabia is far from the world’s worst human rights violator,” Cotton said. “For example, you look at what has happened in Iran in the last three months, and the way they have slaughtered demonstrators on the streets or what China is doing to harvest organs or commit genocide against religious and ethnic minorities.”
Cotton pointed out that Saudi Arabia is one of the US’s most critical security partners, even if they don’t always share US values, arguing that the US wouldn’t have many partners if countries were expected to commit 100% would conform to America’s democratic system.
“The most important thing about governments around the world is not so much whether they are democratic or not, but more whether they are pro-American or anti-American,” Cotton said. “The simple fact is that Saudi Arabia has been an American partner for 80 years.”
Cotton noted that his stance does not “mean to overlook or excuse countries that are pro-American”, arguing that they can be transformed into democratic countries over time.
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The Biden administration’s stance on the issue has proved controversial, with Washington Post CEO Fred Bryan saying the decision fails to “uphold America’s most cherished values.”
“He is granting permission to kill to one of the world’s most egregious human rights abusers,” Bryan said of President Biden.
Biden has seemingly struggled to balance the US relationship with Saudi Arabia in recent months, particularly after the country went against the president’s wishes to ramp up oil supplies in response to rising prices.
The 2018 assassination of Khashoggi has become another focal point in the often strained relationship between Biden and Saudi Arabia, with Biden vowing earlier on the campaign trail to make a “pariah” of Saudi rulers on the issue.
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“I think it was an outright murder,” Biden said at a CNN town hall in 2019. “And I think we should have handled it that way. I said publicly at the time that we should treat it that way and there will be consequences should be for how we deal with that – that power.”
But Cotton believes Biden has at least moved in the right direction when it comes to handling the case.
“They didn’t have to factor in, but again, it would have been a major breach of common practice,” Cotton said.