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Will immunity shield Saudi Prince Mohammed in lawsuit for murder of Jamal Khashoggi?

The U.S. Department of State has suggested Prince Mohammad bin Salman receive sovereign immunity in his trial for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the APEC Leader’s Informal Dialogue with Guests.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the APEC Leader’s Informal Dialogue with Guests during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit on Friday, Nov. 18, 2022, in Bangkok, Thailand.

Athit Perawongmetha, Associated Press

The Biden Administration has controversially stated that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman should be given immunity in the lawsuit made against him for his suspected part in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This follows President Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia earlier this year, where — despite expressing his intolerance of the Saudi Arabia royal family in the past — BIden and Prince Mohammad discussed technology, oil and the murder of Khashoggi.

The lawsuit, brought in 2020 by Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, and Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), the human rights group founded by Khashoggi, sued the prince in a Washington federal court, claiming he orchestrated the murder back in 2018. Though four years have passed, Prince Mohammad has said that he had no knowledge of the plot to kill Khashoggi, according to The New York Times.

A letter from the U.S. Department of State to the Department of Justice was issued Thursday, after the presiding judge over Cengiz v. Mohammed bin Salman requested that the U.S. government file a statement of interest on the case. As Prince Mohammad acts as Saudi Arabia’s prime minister — an appointment made via royal decree in light of King Salman’s failing health, the BBC reports — it was suggested that he should be granted sovereign immunity as head of a foreign government.

The Department of State added in the letter, however, that, “In making this immunity determination, the Department of State takes no view on the merits of the present suit and reiterates its unequivocal condemnation of the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”

Following the U.S. Department of State’s suggestion that the crown prince be given sovereign immunity, Cengiz tweeted, “Jamal died again today.”

The Washington Post released a statement from its publisher, Fred Ryan, following the decision, saying that Biden had turned his back on “fundamental principles of press freedom and equality.”

(President Biden) ”is granting a license to kill to one of the world’s most egregious human rights abusers,” Ryan stated. “While legitimate heads of government should be protected against frivolous lawsuits, the Saudis’ decision to make (Mohammad bin Salman) prime minister was a cynical, calculated effort to manipulate the law and shield him from accountability.”

Khashoggi had fled from Saudi Arabia to the United States, where he wrote dissident articles via The Washington Post that criticized Saudi policies. The New York Times investigated his disappearance in October 2018, finding evidence that suggested the Saudi government was directly involved in murdering Khashoggi. The United States would later corroborate this, when the Biden administration released an intelligence report in February of 2021 that confirmed not only Saudi involvement, but that Prince Mohammad authorized the killing.

During his candidacy, Biden said he would not partner with Saudi Arabia, claiming that he would not sell weapons to the country and planned to make them “pay the price” for Khashoggi’s death, according to The Intercept. When the U.S. Intelligence report on Khashoggi’s murder was released, The New York Times reported, the United States imposed sanctions on part of the team allegedly responsible for Khashoggi’s death, but not on Prince Mohammad in an effort to remain allies with Saudi Arabia.

In July, Biden departed for Saudi Arabia to meet with the leaders of the country, where he and Prince Mohammad reportedly fist-bumped, according to Politico. Along with discussing opening Saudi airspace, cooperation in transitioning to clean energy, the deployment of 5G/6G in Saudi Arabia and other points of concern, human rights violations were discussed. The official White House statement following the meeting read that Biden “received commitments with respect to reforms and institutional safeguards in place to guard against any such conduct in the future.”