US says Saudi Crown Prince has immunity in Jamal Khashoggi lawsuit

Biden administration's opinion is non-binding and judge will ultimately decide whether to grant immunity

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in Istanbul in 2018. AP
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The administration of US President Joe Biden has determined that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has legal immunity in a lawsuit filed against him over the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

It said in a court filing on Thursday that the Crown Prince’s official standing should give him immunity in the lawsuit filed by the fiancee of the Saudi Washington Post columnist and by the rights group he founded, Democracy for the Arab World Now.

The request is non-binding and a judge will ultimately decide whether to grant immunity.

The State Department on Thursday called the administration’s decision to try to protect the Saudi Crown Prince from US courts in Mr Khashoggi’s killing “purely a legal determination”.

The State Department cited what it said was long-standing precedent. Despite its recommendation to the court, the department said in its filing late on Thursday that it “takes no view on the merits of the present suit and reiterates its unequivocal condemnation of the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi”.

“The United States government has expressed grave concerns regarding Jamal Khashoggi’s horrific killing and has raised these concerns publicly and with the most senior levels of the Saudi government,” it said.

“Prime Minister bin Salman as a sitting head of government is immune while in office from the jurisdiction of the United States District Court in this suit.”

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on Friday that the filing had been made at the request of the court “in keeping with long-standing international policy, international law regarding the Crown Prince's position as prime minister”.

“This legal determination has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of the case itself,” Mr Kirby said. “It also has nothing to do with the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia, which as you know is tense.”

In late September, King Salman made Prince Mohammed the Prime Minister in a royal decree which a Saudi official said was in line with responsibilities that the Crown Prince was already exercising.

“The royal order leaves no doubt that the Crown Prince is entitled to status-based immunity,” lawyers for Prince Mohammed said in a petition on October 3 that asked a federal district court in Washington to dismiss the case. It cited other cases where the US has recognised immunity for a foreign head of state.

Mr Khashoggi was killed on October 2, 2018, after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Saudi Arabia said the murder was an unsanctioned operation by security officials and the kingdom has since reformed the leadership of its top intelligence agencies in an attempt to prevent such an incident from happening again.

The Crown Prince has denied ordering Mr Khashoggi's killing but acknowledged later that it took place “under my watch”.

The Biden administration's statement on Thursday noted visa restrictions and other penalties that it had meted out to lower-ranking Saudi officials over the killing.

“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.

Agencies contributed to this report

Updated: November 18, 2022, 6:58 PM