The US government on Thursday recommended that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman be barred from legal action over the 2018 killing of a dissident journalist, according to court documents.
Prince Mohammed was appointed prime minister by royal decree in late September, prompting suggestions that he wanted to avoid exposure in cases brought in foreign courts – including a civil lawsuit brought in the US by Hatice Cengiz, the slain columnist’s fiancee Jamal Khashoggi, was submitted.
The assassination of Khashoggi, a Saudi insider-turned-critic, four years ago at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate temporarily made Prince Mohammed – widely known as MBS – a pariah in the West.
His lawyers previously argued that he “sits at the head of Saudi Arabia’s government” and therefore qualifies for the type of immunity US courts grant to foreign heads of state and other high-ranking officials.
The US government had until Thursday to comment on the matter, if it was going to comment at all. His recommendation is not binding on the court.
“The United States respectfully informs the court that the defendant, Mohammed bin Salman, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is the acting head of government and is accordingly immune from this lawsuit,” the filing to the U.S. District Court said of Columbia, by the administration of President Joe Biden.
But it added that “the State Department is not assessing the merits of the present lawsuit and reiterates its unequivocal condemnation of the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”
The recommendation sparked anger among supporters of Cengiz’s action, including representatives of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), the US-based NGO founded by Khashoggi.
“The Biden admin has gone out of his way to recommend MBS immunity and shield him from accountability,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of DAWN.
“Now that Biden has declared that he has complete impunity, we can expect attacks by MBS against people in our country to escalate even further.”
Agnes Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International, called the recommendation a “deep betrayal”.
Prince Mohammed, who has been the de facto ruler of the kingdom for several years, previously served as deputy prime minister and defense minister to his father, King Salman.
After a period of relative isolation following the assassination of Khashoggi, he was welcomed back onto the world stage this year, notably by President Biden, who traveled to Saudi Arabia in July despite an earlier pledge to make the kingdom a “pariah”.
Thursday’s recommendation gave the leader “a license to kill,” said Khalid al-Jabri, son of Saad al-Jabri, a former Saudi spymaster who has accused the prince of sending an assassin squad to try and take him in kill Canada.
“Having broken its promise to punish MBS for Khashoggi’s assassination, the Biden administration has not only shielded MBS from accountability in US courts, but made him more dangerous than ever with a license to kill more critics without consequences.” , he said.
Last year, Biden released an intelligence report that found Prince Mohammed had authorized the operation against Khashoggi, a claim Saudi authorities dispute.
In the civil case brought by Cengiz and DAWN, plaintiffs allege that Prince Mohammed and more than 20 co-defendants “conspired and willfully kidnapped, bound, drugged, tortured and murdered” Khashoggi, a columnist. The Washington Post.
They are demanding compensation in the form of fines and proof that the killing was ordered by “the top of the Saudi leadership hierarchy.”