WASHINGTON (AP) – Eyebrows were raised six weeks ago when Saudi Arabia’s elder King Salman named his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as prime minister. The laws of the kingdom designate the king as prime minister. King Salman had to declare a temporary exception to bestow the title while making it clear that he retains important responsibilities.
But that move paid off Thursday when the Biden administration said Prince Mohammed’s position as prime minister shielded him from a US lawsuit over his role in the 2018 killing of a US-based journalist by Saudi officials. A judge will now decide whether Prince Mohammed enjoys immunity.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby insisted on Friday that the government’s declaration of immunity for the crown prince of Saudi Arabia was purely a “legal decision” that had “absolutely nothing to do with the matter itself.”
Many experts in international law agreed with the government – but only because of the king’s title increase at the end of September for the crown prince ahead of a planned US decision.
“It would have been just as remarkable for the United States to deny MBS the immunity of the head of state after his appointment as prime minister as it would have been for the United States to recognize the immunity of the head of state to MBS before his appointment.” William S. Dodge, Professor at the University of California-Davis School of Lawhe wrote using the prince’s initials.
State Department spokesman Vedant Patel on Friday gave examples of past cases in which the US recognized the immunity of heads of government or state — Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and India’s Narendra Modi, both on allegations of rights violations.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Washington by murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancé and a DC-based rights group he founded. She accuses the crown prince and some 20 aides, officers and others of planning and carrying out Khashoggi’s assassination at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The assassination, condemned by Biden in the 2019 election campaign process as a “flame murder” that must have consequences for Saudi rulers, is at the heart of a rift between strategic partners, the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Before and immediately after taking office, Biden vowed to take a stand on Saudi Arabia’s crown prince as part of a presidency based on rights and values. But Biden has since offered a fist bump and other conciliatory gestures in hopes – so far disappointed – of convincing the crown prince to pump more oil for world markets.
Biden’s administration argues Saudi Arabia is too important to the global economy and regional security to allow the United States to break away from the decades-old partnership.
But lawyers, some senior Democratic lawmakers and Khashoggi’s newspaper, the Washington Post, on Friday condemned the government’s move.
“Jamal died again today,” Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, tweeted.
Fred Ryan, editor of the Post, called it a “cynical, calculated attempt” to rig the law and shield Prince Mohammed. Khashoggi wrote columns for the Post criticizing the crown prince’s rights abuses in his final months.
“By agreeing to this plan, President Biden is turning his back on the fundamental principles of press freedom and equality,” Ryan wrote.
Cengiz and Khashoggi’s rights group, Democracy for the Arab World Now or DAWN, had argued that the crown prince’s title change at the end of September was just a maneuver to escape US courts, with no legal standing or a change in powers or duties.
Saudi Arabia has not publicly commented on the government’s decision. Saudi embassy and foreign ministry spokesmen did not immediately respond to an email asking for comment on Friday.
Saudi Arabia allegedly blames ‘ruthless’ officials for Khashoggi’s assassination. It is said that the prince played no role.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, as opposed to a constitutional monarchy like the UK, where a prime minister rules rather than a king or queen.
“Pretty pathetic,” Sarah Leah Whitson, head of Khashoggi’s rights group, said of the title change on Friday.
“If anything, it just showed how scared Mohammed bin Salman was and was of our lawsuit and the actual accountability and actual exposure of his crimes,” Whitson said.
The Biden administration appeared to dismiss her group’s argument that Prince Mohammed’s recent title change violates current Saudi Arabian law and should be ignored.
King Salman has continued to make appointments and chair meetings of his council since the title change.
But Prince Mohammed has been a key decision-maker and actor in the kingdom for years, including representing the king abroad.
Some western news outlets had presented the temporary transfer of the prime ministerial title as King Salman – who is in his late 80s – handing over responsibility to 37-year-old Prince Mohammed.
A federal judge gave the US until Thursday to comment on the crown prince’s claim that his reputation protects him in US courts.
At the time of the filing, lawyers had hoped that the government would remain silent and not comment on Prince Mohammed’s immunity one way or the other.
Sovereign immunity, a concept rooted in international law, states that states and their officials are protected from some legal proceedings in the courts of other states.
Previous criminal and civil lawsuits against foreign governments and leaders in which the US has not intervened have generally involved countries with which the US does not maintain diplomatic relations or whose leaders are not recognized as legitimate.
Lawsuits against Iran and North Korea, seeking damages for the deaths or injuries of American citizens, are two prominent examples of cases in which the executive branch has failed to issue a statement on sovereign immunity.
In contrast, the United States maintains full diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. The State Department stressed Thursday that adhering to the principle for leaders of other governments will help ensure courts in other countries do not seek to drag US presidents in front of them to answer lawsuits there.
Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, said the US decision had “absolutely nothing” to do with “strained” US-Saudi Arabia relations over Saudi-led oil production cuts and other issues.
Biden has been “very, very vocal” about the “brutal, barbaric murder of Khashoggi,” Kirby said.
But some of Biden’s Congressional Democrats have expressed disappointment with the administration’s move.
“Is the government giving up trust in the judgment of its own intelligence agencies?” Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, said in a statement. “If Khashoggi’s friends and family are denied a path to accountability in the American court system, where on earth can they go?”
Whitson, the official with Khashoggi’s rights group, said the lawsuit is continuing against the other people named in the lawsuit.
Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.