The White House insisted on Friday that it was the State Department’s decistion to grant Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman legal immunity in lawsuit over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
President Joe Biden’s administration is facing criticism for the decision to give MBS – the crown prince is known by his initials – legal protection from being sued by Khashoggi’s fiancée and by the rights group Khashoggi founded, Democracy for the Arab World Now.
During the 2020 presidential Biden denounced MBS as responsible for the death of the Washington Post columnist.
But the White House put the onus on the State Department.
‘This was a State Department decision,’ the National Security Council’s Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby said in a Friday briefing.
‘The President is aware of this legal process and this and this legal determination,’ he said. ‘This legal determination has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of the case itself.’
President Joe Biden’s White House said the State Department decided to grant Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman legal immunity in lawsuit over Jamal Khashoggi killing – above Biden and MBS fist bump when Biden visited Saudi Arabia in July
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that MBS approved of Jamal Khashoggi’s (above) 2018 murder at the Saudi consulate in Istabul
Kirby added that relations between Washington D.C. and Riyadh remain tense, mainly over the decision by OPEC Plus, a Saudi-led group, to decrease oil production while Western allies are putting embargos on Russian oil because of Vladimir Putin’s war in the Ukraine.
‘It has absolutely nothing to do with the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia,’ Kirby noted, ‘which as you know is tense right now, given the OPEC plus decision, a month or so ago to decrease yet again, oil production.’
He said Biden still held MBS accountable for Khashoggi’s death.
‘The President has been very, very clear and very vocally so about the brutal and barbaric murder of Mr Khashoggi, and of course our condolences continue to go out to the family, and he has worked to hold the regime accountable,’ Kirby noted.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that MBS approved of Khashoggi’s 2018 murder at the Saudi consulate in Istabul. Khashoggi had written critically of the Saudi regime. Saudi agents are believed to have dismembered him, although his remains have never been found.
The administration’s finding of immunity for MBS is non-binding, and a judge will ultimately decide whether to grant immunity.
But it angered activists and risked blowback from Democratic lawmakers. The U.S move came as Saudi Arabia has stepped up imprisonment and other retaliation against peaceful critics at home and abroad and has cut oil production, a move seen as undercutting efforts by the U.S. and its allies to punish Russia for its war against Ukraine.
The State Department on Thursday called the administration’s call to shield the Saudi crown prince from U.S. courts in Khashoggi’s 2018 killing ‘purely a legal determination.’ It cited what it called longstanding precedent.
Despite its recommendation to the court, the State Department said in its filing late Thursday that it ‘takes no view on the merits of the present suit and reiterates its unequivocal condemnation of the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi.’
Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, was immediately critical of the decision.
‘Jamal died again today,’ she tweeted after the U.S. filing late Thursday in her lawsuit.
Biden as a Democratic presidential candidate vowed to make a ‘pariah’ out of Saudi rulers over the 2018 killing of Khashoggi.
‘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.’
But Biden as president has sought to ease tensions with the kingdom, including bumping fists with Prince Mohammed on a July trip to the kingdom, as the U.S. works to persuade Saudi Arabia to undo a series of cuts in oil production.
Khashoggi’s fiancée and DAWN sued the crown prince, his top aides and others in Washington federal court over their alleged roles in Khashoggi’s killing. Saudi Arabia says the prince had no direct role in the slaying.
‘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.
Biden in February 2021 had ruled out the U.S. government imposing punishment on Prince Mohammed himself in the killing of Khashoggi, a resident of the Washington area. Biden, speaking after he authorized release of a declassified version of the intelligence community’s findings on Prince Mohammed’s role in the killing, argued at the time there was no precedent for the U.S. to move against the leader of a strategic partner.
The U.S. military long has safeguarded Saudi Arabia from external enemies, in exchange for Saudi Arabia keeping global oil markets afloat.
‘It´s impossible to read the Biden administration´s move today as anything more than a capitulation to Saudi pressure tactics, including slashing oil output to twist our arms to recognize MBS´s fake immunity ploy,’ Whitson said.
A federal judge in Washington had given the U.S. government until midnight Thursday to express an opinion on the claim by the crown prince’s lawyers that Prince Mohammed’s high official standing renders him legally immune in the case.
‘Jamal died again today,’ Khashoggi’s ex-fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, said on Twitter minutes after the news became public. She added later: ‘We thought maybe there would be a light to justice from #USA But again, money came first.’
Last moments: Khashoggi was last seen on October 2, 2018, entering the consulate in Istanbul where he was accosted and killed by Saudi agents
The Biden administration also had the option of not stating an opinion either way.
Sovereign immunity, a concept rooted in international law, holds that states and their officials are protected from some legal proceedings in other foreign states´ domestic courts.
Upholding the concept of ‘sovereign immunity’ helps ensure that American leaders in turn don´t have to worry about being hauled into foreign courts to face lawsuits in other countries, the State Department said.
Human rights advocates had argued that the Biden administration would embolden Prince Mohammed and other authoritarian leaders around the world in more rights abuses if it supported the crown prince’s claim that his high office shielded him from prosecution.
Prince Mohammed serves as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler in the stead of his aged father, King Salman. The Saudi king in September also temporarily transferred his title of prime minister – a title normally held by the Saudi monarch – to Prince Mohammed. Critics called it a bid to strengthen Mohammed´s immunity claim.