The Biden administration has ruled 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 government says was murdered at the behest of the prince.
Justice Department lawyers have filed a lawsuit at the request of the State Department alleging that Bin Salman was recently appointed prime minister of Saudi Arabia and as a result is eligible for immunity as a foreign head of government, the filing said. It was filed late Thursday night, just before the court deadline for the Justice Department to give its position in court on the immunity issue and other arguments the prince put forward for dismissing the suit.
“Mohammed bin Salman, the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is the incumbent head of government and is therefore immune from this trial,” the indictment reads, calling the killing “heinous”.
The decision is likely to provoke an angry reaction. The White House had hoped President Joe Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia in July would put the troubled relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia back on track, but relations have only deteriorated since then.
The relationship is being re-evaluated, the White House said, in the wake of an oil production cut by Saudi Arabian-led OPEC+ that the government saw as a direct affront to the US. Members of Congress, already outraged by the oil cut and calling for a re-evaluation, are likely to get even more angry if the prince is granted immunity.
Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancé, and DAWN, the Washington-based human rights organization that the late journalist founded, initially filed suit against bin Salman and 28 others in Federal District Court in Washington, DC, in October 2020. They allege that the team of hitmen “kidnapped, tied up, drugged, tortured and killed Khashoggi” at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and then dismembered his body. His remains have never been found.
“Biden himself betrayed his word, betrayed Jamal,” Cengiz told CNN. “History will not forget this wrong decision.”
Cengiz too tweeted, “Biden saved the killer by granting immunity. He saved the criminal and got involved in the crime himself. Let’s see who will save you in the afterlife?”
DAWN executive director Sarah Leah Whitson called the immunity request a “shocking outcome” and a “huge concession” to Saudi Arabia.
“It is truly beyond ironic that President Biden essentially issued an assurance of impunity for Mohammed bin Salman, which is the exact opposite of what he promised to do to hold Jamal Khashoggi’s killers accountable,” Whitson told CNN .
A US intelligence community report on Khashoggi’s assassination, published in February 2021 when Biden took office, said Bin Salman approved the operation to capture or kill the journalist, which ended with his murder and mutilation.
Bin Salman denied the charges and sought immunity from prosecution, claiming that his various governmental and royal positions granted him immunity and placed him outside the jurisdiction of the US courts.
But as crown prince, Bin Salman was not entitled to sovereign immunity that would normally only include a head of state, head of government or foreign minister, and Bin Salman was none of those.
Then, just days before the Biden administration was due to rule on the issue of immunity last month, Bin Salman was promoted to Prime Minister by his father, King Salman, who would normally hold that position.
That was a “trick” to secure the so-called immunity of the head of state, DAWN’s Whitson said, after which the Justice Department asked for an extension.
Now that Bin Salman is prime minister, “the government should recommend that he is entitled to immunity,” said University of California Davis Law School professor William Dodge, who had previously written that the prince was not entitled to immunity.
“It’s almost automatic,” Dodge said, “I think that’s why he was made prime minister to get out of here.”
The State Department was not required to establish immunity, but was invited to do so by the court. A spokesman said their request to grant bin Salman immunity is based on long-standing common and international law, and not on current diplomatic ties or efforts.
“This suggestion of immunity does not reflect an assessment of the merits of the case. It says nothing about broader policy or the state of relations,” a department spokesman told CNN. “This was purely a legal determination.”
The Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Bin Salman had also claimed immunity in a case brought against him by Saad Aljabri, the former Saudi counter-terrorism official, who accused the prince of sending a hit squad to kill him in Canada a few days after Khashoggi’s murder. That case was dismissed by the same court for other reasons.
“After breaking its promise to punish MBS for the murder of Khashoggi, the Biden administration not only protected MBS from liability in US courts, but effectively licensed him to kill more opponents and stated that he would never will be held accountable,” said Aljabri’s son, Khalid. told CNN Thursday.
The White House was widely criticized for Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia in July, when the president clumsily punched the crown prince, saying he is still responsible for Khashoggi’s murder.
Biden said he brought up the murder at the start of their meeting and that the prince continued to deny responsibility.
“I was clear and direct in discussing it. I have made my opinion crystal clear,” Biden said.
The US intelligence community’s four-page report released in 2021 stated that the 15-member Saudi team that arrived in Istanbul in October 2018 when Khashoggi was killed included members associated with the Saudi Center for Studies and Media 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 detail known as the Rapid Intervention Force.”
The report noted that Bin Salman viewed Khashoggi as a threat to the kingdom “and was widely supported to take violent measures to silence him if necessary”.
The intelligence report said they had no idea when the Saudis decided to harm the father of five. “While Saudi officials planned an unspecified operation against Khashoggi, we don’t know how long in advance Saudi officials decided to harm him,” it said.
Last month, on the fourth anniversary of Khashoggi’s death, DAWN demanded that the Biden administration release and publish the full intelligence report on his assassination.
Khashoggi’s fiancee Cengiz claims that when Khashoggi tried to get the papers they needed to get married at the embassy in Washington, D.C., officials “created an opportunity to kill him.”
They told him the only place he could get the documents they needed was the consulate in Istanbul, she said. Two weeks before his appointment on October 2, 2018, the day he was assassinated, Khashoggi and Cengiz were married in a religious Islamic ceremony, the lawsuit said.
“The government’s decision to encourage courts to uphold MBS’s sovereign immunity is yet another disappointing chapter in a string of failures to hold Saudi leaders accountable for the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” said a senior Democratic aide to the Democratic National Assembly. Congress. “These kinds of actions contradict the government’s hollow assurances of responsibility and run counter to our own intelligence assessments of MBS involvement.”
Michigan Representative Debbie Dingell, a Democrat, told CNN Friday morning that she was “stunned” to hear the news of the immunity decision.
“I mean, we know someone was killed. So obviously I’m not comfortable this morning and I want to understand why they did what they did,” Dingell said on “CNN This Morning.”