The Biden administration has told a US court that Mohammed bin Salman should be granted sovereign immunity in a civil case involving the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, effectively ending a last-ditch attempt to hold the Saudi crown prince legally accountable for the 2018 killing.
In a filing released late on Thursday night, the Biden administration said the crown prince’s recent promotion to the role of prime minister meant that he was “the sitting head of government and, accordingly, immune” from the lawsuit.
“The United States government has expressed grave concerns regarding Jamal Khashoggi’s horrific killing and has raised these concerns publicly and with the most senior levels of the Saudi government,” the Department of Justice said in its filing, adding that the US had also imposed financial sanctions and visa restrictions related to the murder.
“However, the doctrine of head of state immunity is well established in customary international law and has been consistently recognized in longstanding executive branch practice as a status-based determination that does not reflect a judgment on the underlying conduct at issue in the litigation,” it said.
The government’s filing included an attached letter from Richard Visek, acting legal adviser to the US state department, instructing the Department of Justice to submit a “suggestion of immunity” to the court.
Legal experts say the US government’s position, which was filed to a US district court, will likely lead judge John Bates to dismiss a civil case brought against Prince Mohammed, known by his initials MBS by Hatice Cengiz, the outspoken fiancee of Khashoggi.
Back in 2019, in the wake of the assassination of Washington Post, then-presidential candidate Biden promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over the kingdom’s human rights record.
Biden repeatedly talked about reevaluating and reassessing US-Saudi relations. To his credit, Biden seemed to follow through on this early in his presidency by suspending offensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, freezing contacts with MBS, and releasing a brief assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence establishing the Saudi crown prince’s role in and responsibility for Khashoggi’s death.
Thursday’s decision is likely to provoke an angry reaction. The White House had hoped the July trip by President Joe Biden to Saudi Arabia would get the rocky US-Saudi relationship back on track but since then, relations have only continued to sour.
The relationship is being reevaluated, the White House has said earlier in October, in the wake of an oil production cut by Saudi-led OPEC+ that the administration saw as a direct affront to the US. Members of Congress, already infuriated by the oil cut and calling for a reevaluation, will likely only be angered further if the prince is given immunity.