The Biden administration said in a U.S. federal court filing on Thursday that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should be granted sovereign immunity in a civil case brought by the fiancée of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a stance that human rights advocates condemned as a betrayal of the president’s vow to hold the Saudi leader accountable.
Lawyers for the U.S. Department of Justice wrote in the new filing that the White House “has determined that Defendant bin Salman, as the sitting head of a foreign government, enjoys head-of-state immunity from the jurisdiction of U.S. courts as a result of that office and is entitled to immunity from the court’s jurisdiction of this suit while he holds that office.”
Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancée, tweeted in response to the Justice Department’s filing that “Jamal died again today.”
While the Biden administration’s intervention is non-binding, it will likely spell an end to the case, which sought “significant” monetary damages as well as “discovery from American law enforcement, intelligence, and administration officials to prove that the extrajudicial killing of Mr. Khashoggi was ordered from the top of the Saudi leadership hierarchy.”
Rights groups pointed out that while bin Salman, commonly known as MBS, has been the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia for years, his formal status as the country’s prime minister—a position traditionally held by the king—was enshrined less than two months ago in what observers called an apparent scheme to ensure his immunity from legal action.
“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’ fake immunity ploy,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a group that Khashoggi founded.
“Rather than rewarding MBS with impunity for his merciless crimes, Biden should have stood up for American values and legal principles,” Whitson added. “Whether or not MBS succeeds in worming out of this lawsuit, we will extract in discovery against his co-defendants every last bit of evidence about his role in this murders. Try as he might, he will not succeed in burying his crime.”
A U.S. intelligence report released last year determined that MBS “approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill” Khashoggi, but the Biden administration has yet to take any steps to punish the crown prince directly despite U.S. President Joe Biden’s campaign promise to make Saudi leaders “pay the price” for Khashoggi’s murder.
Lina al-Hathloul, head of monitoring and communications for the advocacy group ALQST and the sister of Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, warned that the Biden administration’s decision “will empower a regime that punishes its own citizens and U.S. citizens alike.”
“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,” al-Hathloul said.
In a letter accompanying the Justice Department’s Thursday filing, State Department legal adviser Richard Visek insisted that the administration’s position in the civil lawsuit against MBS and his co-conspirators has nothing to do with the “merits” of the legal challenge. Visek also reiterated the State Department’s “unequivocal condemnation of the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”
But the Biden administration was not required to express its view on whether MBS should be immune from legal action in U.S. courts. As DAWN noted in a press release, “Neither the Trump nor Biden administrations previously had agreed to Saudi government demands to suggest immunity for MBS in multiple lawsuits pending against him in the United States.”
“The Biden administration’s decision to suggest immunity for MBS in our lawsuit was an unnecessary, elective action that will serve only to undermine the most important action for accountability for Khashoggi’s heinous murder,” Whitson said. “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.”
Khalid Aljabri, a U.S.-based doctor whose two siblings are currently political prisoners in Saudi Arabia, argued that “instead of siding with MBS and allowing him to manipulate the U.S. judicial system by title-washing his crimes, the Biden administration should have remained neutral and left it to the court to decide whether MBS deserves immunity or not.”
“After breaking its pledge to punish MBS for Khashoggi’s assassination,” Aljabri continued, “the Biden administration has not only shielded MBS from accountability in U.S. courts, but has effectively issued him a license to kill more detractors and declared that he will never be held accountable.”