Joe Biden's US administration moves to shield Saudi crown prince over Jamal Khashoggi’s murder

Joe Biden’s administration said Saudi Arabia’s crown prince should be considered immune from a legal claim over his role in the murder of a US-based journalist.

It is a U-turn from the US president’s campaign trail denunciations of Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the brutal killing.

The administration said the senior position of the crown prince, Saudi Arabia’s defacto ruler and recently named prime minister as well, should shield him against a claim brought by the fiancee of slain Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and by the rights group Khashoggi founded, Democracy For The Arab World Now (Dawn).

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The request is non-binding and a judge will ultimately decide whether to grant immunity. But it is bound to anger human rights activists and many US politicians, coming after Saudi Arabia has stepped up imprisonment and other retaliation against peaceful critics at home and abroad and has cut oil production – a move seen as undercutting efforts by the US and its allies to punish Russia for its war against Ukraine.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the APEC Leaders' Informal Dialogue with Guests event during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bangkok in November. Picture: Athit Perawongmetha/AFP via Getty Images)
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The US State Department on Thursday branded the administration’s call to shield the Saudi crown prince “purely a legal determination”. It cited what it said was a long-standing precedent.

Despite its recommendation to the court, the State Department said it “takes no view on the merits of the present suit and reiterates its unequivocal condemnation of the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi”.

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Saudi officials killed Mr Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. They are believed to have dismembered him, although his remains have never been found.

The US intelligence community concluded Saudi Arabia’s crown prince approved the killing of the widely known and respected journalist, who had written critically of Prince Mohammed’s harsh ways of silencing of those he considered rivals or critics.

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The Biden administration statement on Thursday noted visa restrictions and other penalties it had meted out to lower-ranking Saudi officials in the death.

“From the earliest days of this administration, the United States government has expressed its grave concerns regarding Saudi agents’ responsibility for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder,” the State Department said. Its statement did not mention the crown prince’s own alleged role.

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As a candidate, Mr Biden vowed to make a “pariah” out of Saudi rulers over the 2018 killing of Mr Khashoggi. “I think it was a flat-out murder,” Mr Biden said in a 2019 CNN town hall as a candidate.

“And I think we should have nailed it as that. I publically said at the time we should treat it that way and there should be consequences relating to how we deal with those — that power.”

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But as president, Mr Biden has sought to ease tensions with the kingdom, including bumping fists with Prince Mohammed on a July trip to the kingdom, as the US works to persuade Saudi Arabia to undo a series of cuts in oil production.

Mr Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, and Dawn sued the crown prince, his top aides and others in Washington federal court over their alleged roles in Mr Khashoggi’s killing. Saudi Arabia says the prince had no direct role in the slaying.

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“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,” the head of Dawn, Sarah Leah Whitson, said in a statement, using the prince’s acronym.

In February 2021, Mr Biden had ruled out the US government imposing punishment on Prince Mohammed himself in the killing of Mr Khashoggi, a resident of the Washington area.

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