Biden administration supports immunity for Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi lawsuit

The Biden administration says Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's high office should shield him from a lawsuit over his alleged role in the killing of a U.S.-based journalist, marking a turnaround from Joe Biden's passionate campaign trail denunciations of the prince over the brutal slaying.

Despite the U.S. government stance on bin Salman's immunity, a judge will ultimately make the determination

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, is shown at the APEC summit in Bangkok on Friday. While the U.S. intelligence community concluded the crown prince had approved the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the State Department believes the concept of sovereign immunity applies. (Rungroj Yongrit/The Associated Press)

The Biden administration says Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's high office should shield him from a lawsuit over his alleged role in the killing of a U.S.-based journalist, marking a turnaround from Joe Biden's passionate campaign trail denunciations of the prince over the brutal slaying.

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 (DAWN).

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.

"Jamal died again today," Khashoggi's fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, tweeted after the U.S. filing late Thursday.

Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi, talks to members of the media outside a court in Istanbul on July 3, 2020, where the trial in absentia of two former aides of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was held. Cengiz blasted the U.S. government's stance regarding her lawsuit on Friday. (Emrah Gurel/The Associated Press)

The U.S. government's finding of immunity for Prince Mohammed, sometimes referred to as MBS, is non-binding, and a judge will ultimately decide whether to grant immunity. But it angered rights 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.

Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine reacts:

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."

Strong words on campaign trail

Saudi officials killed Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. They are believed to have dismembered him, although his remains have never been found. The U.S. intelligence community concluded Saudi Arabia's crown prince had approved the killing of the widely known and respected journalist, who had written critically of Prince Mohammed's harsh ways of silencing those he considered rivals or critics.

The Biden administration statement on Thursday noted visa restrictions and other penalties that it had meted out to lower-ranking Saudi officials over 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."

WATCH | Biden comes in for criticism over MBS greeting, meeting:

Biden questioned about meeting MBS and Khashoggi's murder

8 months ago
Duration 2:10
In a news conference on Friday, U.S. President Joe Biden fielded questions about his exchange with Mohammed bin Salman regarding slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and about his fist bump with the Saudi Arabian crown prince.

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.

"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," the head of DAWN, Sarah Leah Whitson, said in a statement, using the prince's acronym.

Sovereign immunity claim

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, D.C., area. Biden, speaking after he authorized the 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.

People hold posters of Khashoggi near the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul during an Oct. 2, 2020, protest. (Emrah Gurel/The Associated Press)

The U.S. military has long safeguarded Saudi Arabia from external enemies, in exchange for Saudi Arabia keeping global oil markets afloat.

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.

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.