Biden Administration Requests Immunity for Saudi Crown Prince MBS in Khashoggi Case

fist bump
Saudi Press Agency via AP

The U.S. Department of Justice declared in a court filing on Thursday that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should receive immunity from a lawsuit filed by the fiance of slain Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Khashoggi disappeared in October 2018 after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, reportedly to obtain documents necessary to marry his fiance Hatice Cengiz. His body has never been found, though Turkish investigators concluded that Saudi government officials killed and dismembered the journalist. Khashoggi was an Islamist writer and critic of the Saudi royal family, leading to accusations that Mohammed bin Salman, known commonly as MBS, ordered the killing.

“This was a heinous crime,” MBS said in 2019. “But I take full responsibility as a leader in Saudi Arabia, especially since it was committed by individuals working for the Saudi government.”

MBS has denied, however, ordering the killing and insisted it was a “mistake.”

Leftist American President Joe Biden repeatedly touted the Khashoggi killing as a matter of great importance to him and vowed while running for president to turn the nation of Saudi Arabia itself into a global “pariah.” The pariah campaign appeared to abruptly end this summer, when Biden organized a visit to the country and met with MBS personally, greeting him with a fist bump in the city of Jeddah.

The Justice Department filing in Cengiz’s lawsuit, which named the crown prince as a defendant, declared that MBS was eligible for legal immunity because his father, King Salman, had appointed him prime minister of the country in September. The Justice Department intervened in the suit in response to a State Department request.

“Prime Minister bin Salman as a sitting head of government is immune while in office from the jurisdiction of the United States District Court in this suit,” the filing reportedly read.

“The State Department recognizes and allows the immunity of Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman as sitting head of government of a foreign state,” it continued, adding, “In making this immunity determination, the Department of State takes no view on the merits of the present suit and reiterates its unequivocal condemnation of the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”

The filing echoes requests by the crown prince’s lawyers for their client to be dismissed from the case on legal immunity grounds.

“The royal order [promoting MBS to prime minister] leaves no doubt that the Crown Prince is entitled to status-based immunity,” the attorneys wrote in a petition in early October, shortly after MBS received the prime minister title.

Cengiz, who filed the suit, pilloried Biden personally in statements on Twitter following the submission of the filing in defense of MBS’s immunity.

“Jamal died again today,” she wrote. “Biden saved the murderer by granting immunity. He saved the criminal and got involved in the crime himself”:

Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a human rights organization founded by Khashoggi serving as co-plaintiff in the case, also expressed disgust with Biden personally and his administration on Thursday.

“It’s really beyond ironic that President Biden has basically delivered an assurance of impunity for Mohammed bin Salman, which is the exact opposite of what he promised to do to hold the killers of Jamal Khashoggi accountable,” Sarah Leah Whitson, DAWN executive director, said in a statement.

Democrats, and Biden in particular, spent much of 2019 condemning Saudi Arabia and expressing their belief that, rather than a gruesome mistake by consulate staff, Khashoggi’s killing was a direct order from MBS.

“Yes, and I said it at the time. Khashoggi was, in fact, murdered and dismembered, and I believe on the order of the crown prince,” Biden said during a debate against other Democrat party candidates in 2019. “And I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them, we were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.”

“There’s very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia,” Biden asserted.

Biden’s decision to visit Saudi Arabia in July thus prompted widespread outrage, to which the White House reacted with a column in the Washington Post by the president. Biden titled the article “Why I’m Going to Saudi Arabia,” but he did not offer any explanation for his decision other than denying that he was seeking to convince the Saudis to produce more oil, thus bringing down gasoline prices at home.

“I know that there are many who disagree with my decision to travel to Saudi Arabia. My views on human rights are clear and long-standing,” Biden wrote, “and fundamental freedoms are always on the agenda when I travel abroad, as they will be during this trip, just as they will be in Israel and the West Bank.”

Shortly before arriving in Saudi Arabia, Biden ignored a request from Cengiz to discuss Khashoggi’s killing.

The visit to Saudi Arabia went poorly. A photo of Biden fist-bumping a smiling MBS prompted global outrage, to which Biden responded by claiming he addressed Khashoggi during his conversation with the crown prince.

“I was straightforward and direct when discussing it,” Biden said after the discussion. “I made my view crystal clear. I said very straightforwardly. For an American president to be silent on an issue of human rights is inconsistent with who we are and who I am.”

Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister Adel al-Jubeir, who was at the meeting, later claimed that Biden “took Saudi Arabia’s assurances at face value” that MBS did not order Khashoggi’s execution.

“T]he Crown Prince explained to him that this was a tragedy for Saudi Arabia and that those who were responsible for it have been investigated and faced [the] law and are now paying the price for the crime that was committed,” al-Jubeir told left-wing outlet CNN, “and we — the conversation then moved on in terms of the official discussions.”

Following Biden’s visit, the Wall Street Journal, citing anonymous sources, claimed in October that MBS “mocks President Biden in private, making fun of the 79-year-old’s gaffes and questioning his mental acuity.”

In an interview in March, MBS described Khashoggi’s killing as a violation of his, the crown prince’s, human rights.

“I feel, myself, that human rights law wasn’t applied to me,” MBS lamented to the Atlantic. “Article XI of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that any person is innocent until proven guilty. I didn’t get that right. So how can you talk to me about human rights without treating me according to my Article XI human rights? That doesn’t make sense.”

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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