US trying to shield Saudi Crown prince from prosecution for Khasoggi killing

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (REUTERS)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (REUTERS)

The Biden administration says Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s high office should shield him from a lawsuit over his role in the killing of a US-based journalist.

The administration spoke out in support of a claim of legal immunity from Prince Mohammed — Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, who also recently took the title of prime minister — against a suit brought by the fiancée of slain Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and by the rights group Khashoggi founded, Democracy for the Arab World Now.

But the US government’s finding of immunity for the Prince Mohammed is non-binding, and a judge will ultimately decide whether to grant immunity.

The show of support has angered rights activists and risked pushback from Democrats.

The State Department on Thursday called the administration’s call to shield the Saudi crown prince from US courts in Khashoggi’s 2018 killing “purely a legal determination.”

Despite its recommendation to the court, the State Department said in its filing that it “takes no view on the merits of the present suit and reiterates its unequivocal condemnation of the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”

Saudi officials killed Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. They are believed to have dismembered him, although his remains have never been found.

US intelligence concluded Saudi Arabia’s crown prince had approved the killing of the widely known journalist, who had written critically of Prince Mohammed’s harsh ways of silencing of those he considered rivals or critics.

Jamal Khashoggi (AFP via Getty Images)
Jamal Khashoggi (AFP via Getty Images)

The Biden administration noted visa restrictions and other penalties that it had introduced to lower-ranking Saudi officials in 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 own alleged role.

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.”

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.

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.