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Biden Administration Says Saudi Crown Prince Has Immunity in Khashoggi Trial
Dismissing the case would help Saudi Arabia end a period of international ostracism triggered by the U.S.-based journalist’s 2018 killing
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, arrives at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation event in Bangkok.
By Stephen Kalin, WSJ
The Biden administration told a U.S. court that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s status as a sitting head of government shields him from a civil lawsuit brought by the fiancée of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The decision comes amid a political dispute between the U.S. and the Saudis over oil production that sent the nearly 90-year-long diplomatic relationship to the breaking point this year. The Saudis angered the White House by engineering a large production cut with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its Russia-led allies last month, but U.S. officials are looking to the group’s next oil output decision in early December with hope for an increase.
Prince Mohammed had long desired the immunity designation in the U.S., according to people close to him, believing he was owed it as the de facto leader, with his father, King Salman, delegating most duties. Without being assured of immunity from prosecution or lawsuits, the people said the prince had avoided travel to the U.S. and hasn’t been there since 2018.
Mr. Khashoggi, a former royal insider who criticized Prince Mohammed’s policies in Washington Post columns, was killed in 2018 and his body dismembered by Saudi agents during a visit to the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate where he was seeking papers needed to marry Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish citizen.
The American intelligence community concluded that the crown prince likely ordered the killing. The Saudi government initially denied involvement in Mr. Khashoggi’s death but later acknowledged that government officials carried out the killing and said the crown prince wasn’t personally involved.
In a filing Thursday, the State Department said “common law principles of immunity” informed its determination of Prince Mohammed’s status, but that “does not reflect a judgment on the underlying conduct at issue in the litigation.” The de facto Saudi leader was deputy prime minister at the time of the killing but in September he was named prime minister, a title traditionally held by the king—currently his father, King Salman.
White House National Security Coordinator John Kirby said the decision was in line with “longstanding international law in keeping with the crown prince’s position as prime minister.” He added that the legal determination has nothing to do with the merits of the lawsuit or with the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, which he called “tense right now given the OPEC+ decision a month or so ago to decrease yet again oil production.”
The court is expected to take up the issue in a hearing next month. Getting Ms. Cengiz’s lawsuit dismissed would help Saudi Arabia move past an episode that drove a wedge between Prince Mohammed and Western allies, particularly the U.S.
The decision removes the possibility of using the U.S. court system to hold Prince Mohammed accountable for Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, an act that caused friction in relations with President Biden. While prosecution in the U.S. for Mr. Khashoggi’s death had always been unlikely, the prince wanted to remove any doubt, the people close to the prince said.
While then-President Donald Trump expressed support for the prince after the killing, Mr. Biden has taken a harder line, vowing during his 2020 presidential campaign to treat Saudi Arabia as a pariah. Barely a month into office, he released the long-delayed intelligence report about the prince’s role in the killing and sanctioned a number of Saudi security officials without penalizing the prince himself.
Mr. Biden refused to speak with Prince Mohammed during his first year in office. But in July, following a period of sustained high oil prices, the president traveled to Saudi Arabia. There, he fistbumped the young ruler ahead of a nearly three-hour meeting in which he said he accomplished “some significant business” and confronted the prince about the killing.
Prince Mohammed has steadily regained his international standing since then after staying away from the U.S. or Europe since 2018 and skipping international summits last year.
President Biden greeted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in July.
PHOTO: BANDAR ALJALOUD/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Supporters of Mr. Khashoggi criticized the court filing as a betrayal and Ms. Cengiz said the administration’s decision was unexpected.
“We thought maybe there would be a light to justice from #USA,” she tweeted. “Jamal died again today.”
The case was brought in 2020 jointly with Democracy for the Arab World Now, a U.S.-based nonprofit set up to promote human rights and the rule of law that Mr. Khashoggi founded while living in self-exile in Washington.
“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,” Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the nonprofit, said, using Prince Mohammed’s initials. “Not even the Trump administration did this.”
A Saudi court has handed down final sentences to eight low-ranking officials for their role in the killing, repealing death sentences after Mr. Khashoggi’s eldest son pardoned them. The public prosecutor declared the case closed.