The Biden administration Friday defended its decision to declare Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, immune to U.S. lawsuits connected to the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The administration’s decision was disclosed in a letter, filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Thursday, in which the State Department said that it “recognizes and allows the immunity of Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman as a sitting head of government of a foreign state” and requested that the Justice Department request that the court recognize that immunity.
In a caveat that did little to soothe the outrage of those seeking to hold Crown Prince Mohammed accountable, the letter said, “In making this immunity determination, the Department of State takes no view on the merits of the present suit and reiterates its unequivocal condemnation of the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”
Critics of the decision pointed out that Saudi Arabia only named the crown prince prime minister in September, suggesting that he accepted the title specifically because it would allow him to claim immunity from the pending lawsuit, filed by Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. The lawsuit makes many charges, including wrongful death and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Pressed on the question of whether President Biden himself had a role in granting the crown prince immunity, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said that the question was not one in which the White House had much discretion.
“The immunity determination, again, is a legal one,” Jean-Pierre said. “It's nothing to do with the merits of this case. … I would not read anything into this filing when it comes to the future of this relationship.”
Khashoggi was a prominent Saudi journalist who fled the country to avoid retaliation for his criticism of the government. Living in the United States, he continued his work, writing for The Washington Post, among other outlets.
In 2018, Khashoggi traveled to Istanbul, where he visited the Saudi embassy in order to secure papers he needed in order to marry Cengiz. Inside the embassy, Khashoggi was ambushed by a team of Saudi agents and killed. The killers then dismembered his corpse and disposed of the remains.
U.S. and other countries’ intelligence agencies have assessed that the murder took place on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed. For his part, the prince claims that he did not know about the murder in advance but accepts responsibility for it in his capacity as ruler of the country.
Biden’s change of tone
During his run for the presidency, then-candidate Joe Biden forcefully denounced Crown Prince Mohammed. In one primary debate Biden declared that there was “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia,” adding, “We [are] going to, in fact, make them pay the price, and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.”
Since then, Biden has dramatically modified his position, even traveling to Saudi Arabia in July, where he exchanged a very public fist-bump with the crown prince.
Despite this, the White House has maintained that Biden’s feelings about the crown prince have not changed.
On Friday, Jean-Pierre said, “The president's feelings about what happened to Jamal Khashoggi are very well known. And, as we have said, he brought up the issue…when he met with the prime minister this summer.”
The decision to grant immunity to Crown Prince Mohammed, who is frequently referred to by his initials, MBS, infuriated activist groups who have been trying for years to see that he faces consequences for Khashoggi’s death.
“The Biden administration’s decision was an unnecessary, elective action that will serve only to undermine the most important action for accountability for Khashoggi’s heinous murder,” Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), said in a statement.
“It’s beyond ironic that President Biden has single-handedly assured MBS can escape accountability when it was President Biden who promised the American people he would do everything to hold him accountable. Not even the Trump administration did this,” Whitson said.
Lina al-Hathloul, head of monitoring and communications for ALQST, a nonprofit organization promoting human rights in Saudi Arabia, said in a statement that the administration’s decision sends the wrong signal.
“This decision will empower a regime that punishes its own citizens and U.S. citizens alike,” said al-Hathloul. “Granting immunity is not only morally deplorable, but will also put the world on notice that America does not back up its words with action.”
On Friday afternoon, The Washington Post publisher and CEO Fred Ryan issued a statement condemning the administration’s decision.
"In granting legal immunity to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, President Biden is failing to uphold America's most cherished values,” Ryan said. “He is granting a license to kill to one of the world's most egregious human-rights abusers who is responsible for the cold-blooded murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist.
“While legitimate heads of government should be protected against frivolous lawsuits, the Saudis' decision to make MBS prime minister was a cynical, calculated effort to manipulate the law and shield him from accountability. By going along with this scheme, President Biden is turning his back on fundamental principles of press freedom and equality. The American people — and those wronged by MBS in Saudi Arabia and around the world — deserve better."