Biden administration tells court Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman is immune from Khashoggi lawsuit

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
(Image credit: Rungroj Yongrit/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

U.S. State Department lawyers on Thursday told a federal judge that the Biden administration considers Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman "immune" from a lawsuit over the 2018 murder of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi because he's Saudi Arabia's "sitting head of government."

Khashoggi's fiancé, Hatice Cengiz, and the human rights group Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) filed a lawsuit in Washington, D.C., seeking punitive and compensatory damages from the crown prince and some 20 other Saudi defendants under the 1991 Torture Victim Protection Act.

The CIA determined, in a report declassified by President Biden, that Prince Mohammad had "approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill" Khashoggi, who was then murdered and likely dismembered inside Istanbul's Saudi consulate. Saudi Arabia punished several men for the murder but claims Prince Mohammed's hands are clean.

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Biden, during the 2020 presidential campaign, had denounced Prince Mohammed over Khashoggi's murder and said he would make Saudi Arabia a "pariah" because of the slaying. The State Department told U.S. District Judge John Bates on Thursday that shielding the crown prince from U.S. justice is "purely a legal determination," and it "takes no view on the merits of the present suit and reiterates its unequivocal condemnation of the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi."

DAWN Executive Director Sarah Leah Whitson slammed the Biden administration's decision, saying it "not only undermines the only effort at judicial accountability for Khashoggi's murder; it signals that our government will ensure impunity for a tyrant like MBS," as the crown prince is widely known, "no matter how heinous his crimes and embolden him further."

The Biden administration is bound by international law, experts said, especially after King Salman named Prince Mohammed, the kingdom's de facto ruler, prime minister in September.

"I'm sure this was a difficult decision for the administration but international law recognizes that heads of state have immunity from civil suits in the courts of other nations," John Bellinger III, legal counsel to the State Department and National Security Council under former President George W. Bush, told The Washington Post. The U.S. government "has always asserted" such sovereign immunity, even when the accused "have been sued for heinous offensives."

The final decision on whether to shield Mohammed from the lawsuit will come from Judge Bates. But no court has ever disregarded a president's "Suggestion of Immunity," the State Department said.

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