The Biden administration declared Thursday that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince’s high office should shield him from lawsuits for his role in the assassination of a U.S.-based journalist, reversing Joe Biden’s passionate campaign trail condemnation of Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the brutal slaying.
The administration argued that the prince’s official status should grant him immunity in the lawsuit brought by the fiancée of slain Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the rights organization he founded, Democracy for the Arab World Now.
The request is non-binding, and a judge will decide whether or not to grant immunity.
However, it is certain to enrage human rights activists and many US lawmakers, as it comes at a time when Saudi Arabia has increased imprisonment and other retaliation against peaceful critics at home and abroad, as well as cut oil production, a move seen as undermining efforts by the US and its allies to punish Russia for its war in Ukraine.
The State Department said on Thursday that the administration’s decision to try to shield Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from prosecution in Khashoggi’s murder was “purely a legal determination.”
Saudi agents murdered Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. They are thought to have dismembered him, but his remains have never been discovered.
The US intelligence community concluded that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince had approved the assassination of the widely known and respected journalist, who had written critically of Prince Mohammed’s harsh methods of silencing those he regarded as rivals or critics.
The Biden administration said in a statement Thursday that it had imposed visa restrictions and other sanctions on lower-ranking Saudi officials in connection with the death.
“From the earliest days of this Administration, the United States Government has expressed its grave concerns regarding Saudi agents’ responsibility for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder,” the State Department said. Its statement did not mention the crown prince’s role.
When Biden was a candidate he vowed to make a “pariah” out of Saudi rulers over the 2018 killing of Khashoggi.
— Hatice Cengiz خديجة (@mercan_resifi) November 18, 2022
“I think it was a flat-out murder,” Biden said in a 2019 CNN town hall, as a candidate. And I think we should have nailed it as that. I publicly said at the time we should treat it that way and there should be consequences relating to how we deal with those — that power.”
However, as president, Biden has sought to defuse tensions with the kingdom, including bumping fists with Prince Mohammed during a July visit to the kingdom, as the US works to persuade Saudi Arabia to reverse a series of oil production cuts.
Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancee, and DAWN sued the crown prince, his top aides, and others in federal court in Washington over their alleged roles in Khashoggi’s murder. Saudi Arabia claims the prince had no direct involvement in the killing.
“It’s beyond ironic that President Biden has singlehandedly assured MBS can escape accountability when it was President Biden who promised the American people he would do everything to hold him accountable,” the head of DAWN, Sarah Leah Whitson, said in a statement, using the prince’s acronym.