The US has granted Saudi's Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman sovereign immunity in a lawsuit over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The decision means that despite the near certainty of the US intelligence community that the 37-year-old authorised the brutal murder of Khashoggi in 2018, any prospect for holding the crown prince legally accountable for the killing is blocked.
In a filing released yesterday, the administration of President Joe Biden said that the crown prince's recent promotion to the role of prime minister meant that he was "the sitting head of government and, accordingly, immune" from the lawsuit filed by Khashoggi's fiancee Hatice Cengiz in March last year.
"The United States government has expressed grave concerns regarding Jamal Khashoggi's horrific killing and has raised these concerns publicly and with the most senior levels of the Saudi government," the Department of Justice said in its filing, adding that the US had also imposed financial sanctions and visa restrictions related to the murder.
"However, the doctrine of head of state immunity is well established in customary international law and has been consistently recognized in longstanding executive branch practice as a status-based determination that does not reflect a judgement on the underlying conduct at issue in the litigation," the Department of Justice added.
The decision is seen as another sign of capitulation by President Joe Biden who came into office describing the Saudi kingdom as a "pariah" and saying that he would hold the crown prince to account for the murder of Khashoggi. His trip to Riyadh in July, which critics described as a humiliation for the US president, was the first sign of a U-Turn by the Biden administration.
Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Cengiz, said that the Biden administration's suggestion of immunity for Bin Salman isn't just a mistake as a matter of law, it's a mistake as a matter of policy.
"The Biden administration's decision to suggest immunity for MBS in our lawsuit was an unnecessary, elective action that will serve only to undermine the most important action for accountability for Khashoggi's heinous murder," said Sarah Leah Whitson of DAWN using an acronym for the crown prince. "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. Not even the Trump administration did this."