WASHINGTON (AP) — It raised eyebrows six weeks ago when Saudi Arabia’s elderly King Salman appointed his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as prime minister. The laws of the kingdom designate the king as prime minister. King Salman had to make a temporary exception to loan the title, while at the same time making it clear that he will retain the most important duties.
But that move paid off on Thursday, when the Biden administration declared that Prince Mohammed’s position as prime minister shielded him from a US lawsuit over what the US intelligence community believes was his role in the 2018 murder of a US-based journalist by Saudi officials. A judge will now decide whether Prince Mohammed enjoys immunity.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby stressed on Friday that the government’s declaration of immunity for Saudi Arabia’s crown prince was purely a “legal determination” that has “absolutely nothing to do with the substance of the case itself.”
Many international law experts agreed with the government, but only because of the king’s title elevation to the crown prince in late September ahead of a planned US decision.
“It would have been as remarkable for the United States to deny MBS’s immunity as head of state after his nomination as prime minister, as it would have been for the United States to recognize MBS’s immunity as head of state before his nomination.” William S. Dodge, a professor at the University of California-Davis School of Lawwrote with the prince’s initials.
State Department spokesman Vedant Patel on Friday gave examples of past cases where the US recognized the immunity of heads of government or state — Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Narendra Modi of India, both on rights violation charges.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Washington by slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancée and a DC-based rights group he founded. It accuses the crown prince and about 20 aides, officers and others of plotting and carrying out the assassination of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The assassination, which Biden condemned during the 2019 campaign trial as an “outright murder” that should affect Saudi rulers, is at the heart of a rift between strategic partners, the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Before and immediately after taking office, Biden vowed to take a stand against Saudi Arabia’s crown prince as part of a presidency that would be based on rights and values. But Biden has since offered a punch and other conciliatory gestures in the hopes – so far disappointed – of persuading the crown prince to pump more oil for world markets.
The Biden administration argues that Saudi Arabia is too important to the global economy and to regional security to allow the United States to walk away from the decades-old partnership.
But rights advocates, some leading Democratic lawmakers and Khashoggi’s newspaper, The Washington Post, condemned the administration’s decision on Friday.
“Jamal passed away again today,” Khashoggi’s fiancé, Hatice Cengiz, tweeted.
Fred Ryan, publisher of the Post, called it a “cynical, calculated attempt” to manipulate the law and protect Prince Mohammed. Khashoggi wrote columns for the Post criticizing the Crown Prince’s rights abuses in his final months.
“By agreeing to this plan, President Biden is turning his back on the fundamental principles of press freedom and equality,” Ryan wrote.
Cengiz and Khashoggi’s rights group, Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN, had argued that the crown prince’s title change in late September was little more than a maneuver to escape US courts, without legal status or any change in authority or duties .
Saudi Arabia has not publicly commented on the government’s decision. Spokesmen for the Saudi embassy and foreign ministry did not immediately respond to an email asking for comment on Friday.
Saudi Arabia blames what it says were “rogue states” for Khashoggi’s murder. It says the prince played no part.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, as opposed to a constitutional monarchy like the United Kingdom, where a prime minister rather than a king or queen rules.
“Pretty pathetic,” Sarah Leah Whitson, head of Khashoggi’s rights group, said of the title change on Friday.
“If anything, it showed how scared Mohammed bin Salman was and has been about our trial and actual accountability and actual discovery of his crimes,” Whitson said.
The Biden administration appeared to reject her group’s argument that Prince Mohammed’s recent title change violated Saudi Arabia’s prevailing law and should be disregarded.
King Salman has continued to make appointments and chair meetings of his council since the title change.
But Prince Mohammed has been an important decision maker and actor in the kingdom for years, including representing the king abroad.
Some Western news outlets had suggested the temporary transfer of the title of prime minister to King Salman – who is in his late 80s – with responsibility transferred to Prince Mohammed, who is 37.
A federal judge had given the US until Thursday to rule on whether or not to rule on the crown prince’s claim that his position protects him from US courts.
Law lawyers had hoped until the time of filing that the government would remain silent and would not comment on Prince Mohammed’s immunity anyway.
Sovereign immunity, a concept rooted in international law, means that states and their officials are protected from certain legal proceedings in the courts of other foreign states.
Previous criminal and civil cases against foreign governments and leaders, in which the US has not intervened, have generally involved countries with which the US does not maintain diplomatic relations or recognize their heads of state or government as legitimate.
Cases brought against Iran and North Korea seeking damages for the death or injury of U.S. citizens are two prominent examples of cases where the executive branch has not weighed in on a view of sovereign immunity.
In contrast, the United States has full diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. The State Department stressed on Thursday that honoring the principle for the leaders of other governments ensures that courts in other countries do not try to drag US presidents to answer cases there.
National Security Council spokesman Kirby said the US decision had “absolutely nothing” to do with “strained” relations between the US and Saudi Arabia over Saudi-led oil production restrictions and other matters.
Biden is “very, very vocal” about the “brutal, barbaric murder of Khashoggi,” Kirby said.
But some of Biden’s fellow Democrats in Congress expressed disappointment at the administration’s move.
“Is the government abandoning its confidence in the judgment of its own intelligence community?” Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, said in a statement. “If Khashoggi’s friends and family are denied the path to accountability in the US justice system, where in the world can they go?”
Whitson, the official of Khashoggi’s rights group, said the lawsuit against the others named in the lawsuit will continue.
Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.