Saudi prince’s new title key to avoid lawsuit over Khashoggi murder

It made headlines six weeks ago when Saudi Arabia’s aging King Salman named his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as prime minister. The law of the state designates the king as prime minister. King Salman had to declare a temporary exemption to lend the title, while making it clear that he will continue key duties.

But that move paid dividends on Thursday, when the Biden administration declared that Prince Mohammed’s status as prime minister shielded him from a US lawsuit over what US intelligence says was his role in the 2018 killing of a journalist in Saudi Arabia. A judge will now decide whether Prince Mohammed has immunity.

John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, insisted on Friday that the administration’s declaration of immunity for the crown prince of Saudi Arabia was purely a “legal decision” that had “absolutely nothing to do with the merits of the case itself.”

Many experts in international law agreed with the administration – but only because of the king’s title increase in September for the crown prince, before the American decision is planned.

“It would have been as significant for the US to deny MBS immunity after his appointment as prime minister as it would have been for the US to grant MBS immunity before he was appointed,” he said. William S. Dodge, a professor at the University of California-Davis School of Law, wrote and used the prince’s initials.

State Department spokesman Vedant Patel on Friday gave examples of previous cases in which the United States granted immunity to heads of state or state — Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and India’s Narendra Modi, both over allegations of rights abuses.

The case was filed in federal court in Washington by the fiance of slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi and by a DC-based rights group he founded. There, the crown prince and about 20 assistants, officers and others are accused of plotting and committing the murder of Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul.

The killing, which Biden denounced during his 2019 campaign trial as a “flick assassination” bound to have consequences for Saudi Arabia’s rulers, is at the heart of the dispute between strategic partners the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Before and immediately after taking office, Biden vowed to stand up to the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, as part of a presidency based on rights and values. But Biden has since offered fist bumps and other conciliatory gestures in hopes — so far disappointed — of convincing the crown prince to pump more oil for world markets.

The Biden administration argues that Saudi Arabia is too important to the global economy and regional security to allow the United States to walk away from the decades-old partnership.

But rights advocates, some senior Democratic lawmakers and Khashoggi’s newspaper, The Washington Post, condemned the administration’s move on Friday.

“Jamal died again today,” Khashoggi’s fiancee Hatice Cengiz tweeted.

Post publisher Fred Ryan said it was a “conical, calculated effort” to manipulate the law and defend Prince Mohammed. Khashoggi wrote columns for the Post which in his final months criticized the crown prince’s rights violations.

“By following this arrangement, President Biden is turning his back on fundamental principles of press freedom and equality,” Ryan wrote.

Cengiz and Khashoggi’s rights group, Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN, had argued that the crown prince’s title change in late September was nothing more than a move to escape US courts, with no legal status or change in powers or duties.

Saudi Arabia has not publicly commented on the administration’s decision. Spokesmen for the Saudi embassy and the foreign ministry did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment on Friday.

Saudi Arabia blames what it says were “rogue” officials for Khashoggi’s murder. It says that the prince had no part in it.

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, as opposed to a constitutional monarchy like the UK, where a prime minister rather than a king or queen rules.

“Pretty sad,” Sarah Leah Whitson, head of Khashoggi’s rights group, said Friday of the title change.

“If anything, it just showed how afraid Mohammed bin Salman was and has been of our prosecution and real accountability and real discovery of his crimes,” Whitson said.

The Biden administration appeared to reject his group’s argument that Prince Mohammed’s recent title change is against Saudi Arabian law and should be ignored.

King Salman has continued to appoint and chair meetings of his council after the title change.

But Prince Mohammed has for many years been a key decision-maker and actor in the kingdom, including representing the king abroad.

Some Western media had promoted the temporary transfer of the title of prime minister to King Salman – who is in his late 80s – handing responsibility over to Prince Mohammed, who is 37.

A federal judge had given the United States until Thursday to rule, or not, on the crown prince’s claim that his status protects him from US courts.

Rights campaigners had hoped the government would remain silent until they filed, and would not comment on Prince Mohammed’s immunity, anyway.

Sovereign immunity, a concept with roots in international law, claims that states and their officials are protected from some lawsuits in the courts of other foreign states.

Previous criminal and civil cases brought against foreign governments and leaders in which the United States has not intervened have generally involved countries with which the United States has no diplomatic relations or does not recognize their head of state or government as legitimate.

Lawsuits brought against Iran and North Korea seeking damages for the deaths or injuries of American citizens are two prominent examples of cases where the executive branch has not weighed in on the concept of sovereign immunity.

In contrast, the United States maintains full diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. The State Department emphasized Thursday that respecting the principle for leaders of other governments helps ensure that courts in other countries do not seek to drag the president of the United States to answer cases there.

National Security Council spokesman Kirby said the U.S. decision had “absolutely nothing” to do with “strained” U.S.-Saudi relations over Saudi-led oil production cuts and other issues.

Biden has been “very, very vocal” about Khashoggi’s “brutal, barbaric murder,” Kirby said.

But some of Biden’s fellow Democrats in Congress expressed disappointment with the administration’s move.

“Is the administration casting aside its trust in the judgment of its own intelligence community?” Sen. Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, said in a statement. “If Khashoggi’s friends and family are denied a path to accountability in the American justice system, where on earth can they go?

Whitson, an official with Khashoggi’s rights group, said the lawsuit would continue against the others named in the lawsuit.

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Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.

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