The Biden administration has decided that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should enjoy immunity from a lawsuit brought by the fiancee of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the kingdom who was murdered at a Saudi consulate in Turkey.
The Department of Justice said that because the crown prince was recently named prime minister, he qualifies for immunity as a head of state.
“Mohammed bin Salman, the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is the sitting head of government and, accordingly, is immune from this suit,” the department said in court papers.
The filing calls the 2018 murder “heinous.” The immunity determination prompted a backlash on Friday from lawmakers and others.
“I’m going to be very blunt. I was stunned when I read it this morning,” Rep. Debbie Dingell, Michigan Democrat, told CNN on Friday. “I already was texting my staff trying to understand what the issues were. So I think it’s very complicated, but I am very disturbed.”
She added, “Before I go off on one of my — whatever — I do want to understand the issues and have asked to get the details of what this finding is and why they’re doing it.”
Others were blunter.
“I, for one, don’t think it’s ok for the American government to shield anyone when it comes to killing American journalists,” tweeted former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, a prominent progressive voice. “It’s unacceptable and abhorrent. Justice for Jamal Khashoggi.”
Conservative MSNBC contributor Charlie Sykes posted a story about the decision with his brief analysis: “Bull——.”
Khashoggi was killed four years ago at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul before his body was chopped up with a bone saw.
His fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, filed a lawsuit against the crown prince and 28 others in 2020 as questions swirled about his involvement and whether he ordered the killing.
“[President] Biden saved the murderer by granting immunity. He saved the criminal and got involved in the crime himself,” Ms. Cengiz tweeted late Thursday.
Mr. Biden previously talked tough about the case, saying it made Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state.
Since then, the president has grappled with America’s awkward relationship with the Saudis, who are seen as a key security partner in the Middle East and energy supplier.
Mr. Biden met with the crown prince earlier this year, greeting him with a fist-bump, and pleaded with him to boost energy production. High gas prices have been a drag on Mr. Biden’s presidency.
The White House on Friday said the DOJ acted at the request of the State Department and that the determination has “nothing to do with the merits of this case.”
“Immunity determination is a legal one,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, citing the leaders of Haiti, Zimbabwe and India as examples of past heads of state that have enjoyed immunity.
Robert Nicholson, executive director of the Philos Project — an organization that promotes Christian engagement in the Near East — said U.S.-Saudi relations are under strain as the Biden administration tries to fulfill campaign promises related to human rights and clean energy.
However, it’s clear that the White House wants to salvage some kind of working relationship with MBS, which a finding of his civil liability in an American court would undoubtedly make impossible,” he said. “Granting heads of state legal immunity is standard practice in international relations, but here there is the added motivation to keep as many bridges intact with [the kingdom] as possible, especially as the energy crisis surrounding the Ukraine war remains unresolved.
While it is unlikely the DOJ decision will result in a “dramatic” improvement in U.S.-Saudi relations, he said, it will “certainly prevent them from reaching a catastrophic point.”
• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.
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