Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman granted immunity by US government

The Biden administration supports shielding MBS – who is both the Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia, a key US ally – from a lawsuit brought by the fiancée of slain Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi

Mohammed bin Salman
Joe Biden meets Mohammed bin Salman on July 15, 2022 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

US President Joe Biden – who once vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah state” – has spent the better part of 2022 making concessions to the Kingdom. In the most recent attempt to get the Gulf dictatorship to produce more oil to bring down energy prices, the Biden administration is supporting legal immunity for Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia, who is facing a lawsuit filed by the family of murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

MBS currently has open cases pending in the United States and other countries for the murder of Khashoggi – a Saudi citizen and US permanent resident – who was dismembered with a bone saw in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey on October 2, 2018, by Saudi agents. However, on the night of Thursday, November 17, 2022, the US Department of Justice – at the behest of the State Department – made the case to District Judge John Bates that, given the political position of MBS, he should be granted full legal protection from the American court system.

“Mohammed bin Salman, the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is the sitting head of government and, accordingly, is immune from this suit,” the filing reads. It is signed by Richard Visek, the acting legal advisor at the State Department.

In February 2021 – one month after Biden took office – a CIA report stated unequivocally that “Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”

Khashoggi – once an ally of MBS – fell out of favor with the regime during the early 2010s, writing critical articles of Saudi policies in Middle East Eye and The Washington Post. He went into exile in 2017, but was assassinated barely a year later when he attempted to obtain documents from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, so that he could officially divorce his ex-wife and marry his fiancé. It is suspected that Khashoggi was lured to the consulate by Saudi authorities, who wanted him dead.

Since condemning MBS during the 2020 presidential election campaign, Biden – along with several other Western leaders – has worked to rehabilitate him. In mid-July of this year, with oil prices skyrocketing due to the war in Ukraine, Biden famously fist-bumped the Saudi dictator at a meeting in Jeddah. The following month, MBS was warmly received by French President Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace. For the sake of increasing Saudi oil production, any talk of sanctions suddenly disappeared.

In the end, despite all the kowtowing to the Saudi regime, MBS ultimately cut oil production to keep the price of crude high. This has benefited Saudi coffers, as well as Putin’s Russia, another major oil exporter. The decision was widely considered to be a direct snub to Biden and his Democratic Party.

Khashoggi’s fiancé – Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish researcher in the field of Middle East Studies – has accused Biden of “saving the murderer by granting him immunity.”

“Jamal has died again today,” she said, after learning of the US government’s decision. “We thought that there would be justice in the United States – but money came first.” This was a reference to Saudi Arabia’s vast oil wealth and its influence over US policy.

Since 2020, Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) – a campaign group co-founded by Khashoggi – has joined Cengiz in filing a lawsuit against MBS. It seeks both compensatory and punitive damages from the Saudi dictator and more than 20 other top officials, who they argue should be held responsible for the murder of a US-based journalist and democracy advocate. DAWN has condemned Biden’s decision as both “a political and legal mistake.”

Around the time that the lawsuit was filed in the US, a court in Saudi Arabia – aiming to deflect attention from the crown prince – sentenced eight individuals to jail sentences for organizing and carrying out the murder of Khashoggi. Half of these men received paramilitary training in the United States. Sentences against five of the eight individuals have already been reduced since 2020.

Agnès Callamard – a French human rights investigator, who was previously the UNHCR’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions – deemed the Saudi-led investigation and subsequent trial to be a “parody of justice.” Since June 2019, she has explained that all evidence suggests that MBS and his inner circle orchestrated the kidnapping, torture, dismemberment and killing of Khashoggi. Callamard – now the secretary general of Amnesty International – has been repeatedly threatened by Saudi authorities.

Khashoggi’s remains have never been recovered by his loved ones.

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