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Biden administration says Saudi crown prince immune in Khashoggi lawsuit

State Department determines that Mohammed bin Salman's recent appointment as prime minister allows immunity in civil case
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks to US President Joe Biden during the Jeddah Security and Development Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 16 July (Reuters)

The Biden administration said on Thursday that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should have immunity in a lawsuit filed against him in the US over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

In a court filing made by Department of Justice lawyers late on Thursday at the request of the US State Department, the crown prince’s recently appointed role as prime minister was cited as grounds for immunity. 

“The State Department recognises and allows the immunity of Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman as a sitting head of government of a foreign state,” the court filing reads. 

It added that in making the determination, the State Department “takes no view on the merits of the present suit and reiterates its unequivocal condemnation of the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi”. 

The Middle East Eye and Washington Post columnist was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018, in an operation that both Turkish intelligence and the CIA have said was sanctioned by the crown prince.

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Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn), the US-based advocacy group that Khashoggi established and ran, and his fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, are plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking justice for Khashoggi's killing.

In September, Mohammed bin Salman, who for years has been de-facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, was elevated to prime minister, in a move which was widely seen by critics as an attempt to protect him from litigation. 

The role of premier is traditionally held by the king, who acts as both head of state and government.  

“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 in a statement. 

"It has nothing to do with the merits of the case."

'Jamal died again'

Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Dawn, condemned the ruling. 

"It's beyond ironic that President [Joe] 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," Whitson said, using a common acronym for the crown prince's name.

She described the move as “a capitulation to Saudi pressure tactics, including slashing oil output to twist our arms to recognise MBS's fake immunity ploy".

Biden was criticised for fist bumping the crown prince in July during a visit to Saudi Arabia to discuss energy and security issues, having previously vowed to make the de-facto leader a “pariah” over Khashoggi’s killing. 

“Jamal died again today,” tweeted Cengiz on Thursday. 

“It wasn’t a decision everyone expected. We thought maybe there would be a light to justice from #USA but again, money came first.”

The lawsuit seeks to hold the crown prince as well as 20 co-defendants liable for Khashoggi’s murder under US federal and state laws. 

The US federal lawsuit is the remaining legal action over Khashoggi's murder, after a Turkish court shut down its own proceedings in June and transferred the case to Saudi judicial authorities, whose prosecution of the alleged killers has been widely declared a sham.

"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," said Whitson.

"Try as he might, he will not succeed in burying his crime."

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