Biden administration says Saudi prince has immunity in Jamal Khashoggi killing lawsuit

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman welcomes Joe Biden to Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in July. Credit: AP

The Joe Biden administration has said Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has immunity from a lawsuit over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist dismembered by Saudi agents inside the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul.

US intelligence has previously said the crown prince approved the operation to capture or kill Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi critic. The prince has denied the allegations.

In court filings, the US State department said he should have immunity because of his new role as Saudi prime minister.

Jamal Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Credit: AP

Justice Department lawyers said the executive branch of US government, referring to the Biden Administration, had "determined that defendant bin Salman, as the sitting head of a foreign government, enjoys head of state immunity from the jurisdiction of US courts as a result of that office."

“This is a legal determination made by the State Department under longstanding and well-established principles of customary international law," a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council said.

"It has nothing to do with the merits of the case." The request is non-binding and a judge will ultimately decide whether to grant immunity.

Hatice Cengiz, the fiancee of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi. Credit: AP

The decision drew immediate condemnation, with Mr Khashoggi's fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, writing on Twitter that "Jamal died again today" with the ruling.

Ms Cengiz, and Democracy for the Arab World Now, the rights group Mr Khashoggi founded, sued the crown prince, his top aides and others in Washington federal court over their alleged roles in the journalist's killing.

“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," Sarah Leah Whitson, the head of DAWN said.

As a presidential candidate, Mr Biden said in a 2019 CNN town hall that he thought the killing "was a flat-out murder".

Mr Khashoggi had written critically about Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. Credit: AP

But as president he has sought to ease tensions with the kingdom, including bumping fists with Prince Mohammed on a July trip to the kingdom, as the US works to persuade Saudi Arabia to undo a series of cuts in oil production.

Saudi Arabia has been accused of numerous human rights abuses, including unfair trials, the imposition of the death penalty, flogging punishments and discrimination against women and LGBTQ groups. But concerns about human rights have been somewhat eclipsed by other challenges, including Iran’s nuclear ambitions and rising gas prices in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Mr Khashoggi was a 59-year-old journalist who was a critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s authoritarian consolidation of power.

Prince Mohammed, 37, was named crown prince by his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, in 2017. He was then given the role of prime minister in September this year.

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