The Biden administration requests immunity for the Saudi crown prince in the killing of Khashoggi: “Beyond the irony.”

The Biden administration announced Thursday night that the official status of the Saudi crown prince should grant him immunity from lawsuits for his alleged role in the brutal murder of a US-based journalist.

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

Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancée, and Democracy in the Arab World Now have sued Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, for their role in Khashoggi’s murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

According to the Associated Press, the State Department described the decision to try to protect the Saudi crown prince from US courts in Khashoggi’s murder as a “purely legal decision,” citing a “long-standing precedent.”

Biden is competing with the Saudi crown prince to kill Khashoggi

Saudi 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 Erham/Baraka photo via AP)

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

The Biden administration’s request for immunity is non-binding and will ultimately be decided by a judge, but it is expected to infuriate human rights activists and many US lawmakers, according to the Associated Press.

Human rights advocates have argued that Prince Mohammed and other authoritarian leaders around the world will be emboldened to commit more rights abuses if a Biden administration supports the crown prince’s claim that his high position shields him from prosecution.

The White House will not say if Biden will bring Jamal Khashoggi to a Saudi meeting, after wide silences

Despite the recommendation to the court, the State Department reportedly said it “does not consider the merits of the current lawsuit and reiterates its unequivocal condemnation of the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”

Khashoggi, a well-known and respected international journalist, was murdered by Saudi officials on October 2, 2018 after publicly criticizing the crown prince’s harsh methods of silencing his opponents or critics. It is believed that he was dismembered, but his remains have not been found.

According to the Associated Press, US intelligence agencies have concluded that the crown prince approved Khashoggi’s murder, despite the state’s claim that he was not directly involved.

People hold posters of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, near the Saudi consulate in Istanbul October 2, 2020, marking two years since his death.

People hold posters of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, near the Saudi consulate in Istanbul October 2, 2020, marking two years since his death.
(AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

Saudi Arabia vows retaliation if Trump continues to threaten “severe punishment” for Khashoggi

The Biden administration’s statement cited visa restrictions and other sanctions it imposed on lower-ranking Saudi officials in Khashoggi’s death, but did not mention the crown prince’s alleged role.

“Since the early days of this administration, the United States government has expressed grave concern about the responsibility of Saudi agents for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” the State Department said, according to the Associated Press.

During his campaign for the presidency in 2019, President Biden promised to “make the Saudi rulers pariahs” for brutal death.

“I think it was categorical murder,” Biden said at a CNN town hall in 2019. “And I think we should have called it that. I said publicly at the time that we have to deal with it that way, and there has to be consequences for how we deal with those — that power.”

Sarah Leah Whitson, chair of Democracy in the Arab World Now, expressed her displeasure with the president’s request in a statement Thursday.

Sarah Leah Whitson said, “It is ironic that President Biden single-handedly asserted that Mohammed bin Salman could escape accountability when it was President Biden who promised the American people that he would do everything to hold him accountable.”

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman takes his seat prior to a working lunch at the G20 summit, Tuesday, November 15, 2022, in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman takes his seat prior to a working lunch at the G20 summit, Tuesday, November 15, 2022, in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia.
(Leon Neal/Paul Photo via The Associated Press)

Biden heads to Saudi Arabia with a kiss-and-make-up mission

Since taking office, Biden has tried to ease tensions with the kingdom as the United States tries to persuade Saudi Arabia to back off a series of oil production cuts.

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

The Associated Press reports that the US military has long protected Saudi Arabia from external enemies in return for keeping global oil markets afloat.

“It is impossible to read the Biden administration’s move today as anything more than giving in to Saudi pressure tactics, including cutting oil production to twist our arms around Mohammed bin Salman’s fake immunity ploy,” said Sarah Leah Whitson.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greets President Biden at the Royal Peace Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 15.  The prince reportedly mocked Biden in private and said he did not like him.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greets President Biden at the Royal Peace Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 15. The prince reportedly mocked Biden in private and said he did not like him.
(Saudi Royal Court/Al-Bayan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The administration had until midnight Thursday to express its opinion on the claim that the crown prince’s status “makes him legally immune” in this case. There was also the option of not giving an opinion.

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Prince Mohammed is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia in place of his aging father, King Salman.

In September, the Saudi monarch temporarily transferred his title as prime minister to Prince Mohammed, a move that critics believe strengthens Mohammed’s claim for immunity.

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