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Saudi crown prince granted immunity from lawsuit in journalist's killing

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been granted immunity from a U.S. civil lawsuit that accused him of ordering the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. File Photo courtesy of Saudi press agency
1 of 4 | Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been granted immunity from a U.S. civil lawsuit that accused him of ordering the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. File Photo courtesy of Saudi press agency | License Photo

Nov. 18 (UPI) -- Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been granted immunity from a U.S. civil lawsuit that accuses him of ordering the 2018 slaying of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Thursday's decision by the Biden administration means the prince, who was hastily installed as prime minister of Saudi Arabia less than two months ago, won't have to answer to the legal action filed in 2020 by Khashoggi's widow.

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In July, U.S. District Judge John Bates -- the judge overseeing the civil suit -- sent a memo to the Biden administration asking whether bin Salman should be granted sovereign immunity in the case.

Administration lawyers responded Thursday in a court filing that noted bin Salman's status as a "sitting head of government" he is "immune from this suit" under international law.

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The administration suggested that it was bound from taking any action in the case so long as bin Salman remained the country's prime minister.

In late September, the aging Saudi King Salman negated national law in order to give up one of his own titles and elevate his 37-year-old son to the nation's highest office.

The younger Salman was well-positioned to assume power as the indisputable heir to the throne, but critics questioned the timing of the move and speculated if it was made to shield the prince from any criminal liability in the Khashoggi killing.

In the United States, the well-publicized civil trial was back in the headlines, which added pressure on the Saudi royal family to find a way to permanently protect the future king from any prosecution in the case, diplomatic experts said.

The civil suit, filed by Hatice Cengiz in October 2020, alleges bin Salman and other Saudi officials hatched a "conspiracy with premeditation" to kill Khashoggi, who was found tortured to death inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in 2018.

A former Saudi loyalist, Khashoggi became a target after fleeing the kingdom for the United States and becoming one of the crown's most vocal dissidents, which was amplified by his powerful voice in the American media.

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The Saudi regime has recently intensified its crackdown on government opponents, according to Saudi political activists living in exile.

In another high-profile case in the country, Salma al-Shehab, a PhD student on break from Leeds University in Britain, was arrested and sentenced to 34 years in prison after she was accused of retweeting the posts of known political dissidents.

Ongoing human rights violations by the Saudi government in recent years have soured its relationship with the United States.

The Khashoggi case has further complicated diplomacy between the longtime allies, with the United States becoming less reliant on oil from the small Middle East nation but continuing to provide it military protection.

In July, U.S. President Joe Biden visited Saudi Arabia in an effort to renew relations and push for more oil production, but Riyadh ultimately decided to cut output as soaring energy prices gashed the United States and economies around the world.

At the time, Biden said he told the crown prince he thought he was personally responsible for the killing when he broached the subject during a work session with him and other ministers of the government at Al Salam Royal Palace.

"With the respect to the murder of Khashoggi, I raised it at the top of the meeting, making it clear what I thought of it at the time, and what I think of it now," Biden told reporters in a news conference after the meeting. "I made my view crystal clear. I said very straightforwardly, for an American president. To be silent on the issue of human rights is inconsistent ... with who we are and who I am.

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"What happened to Khashoggi was outrageous."

This week, State Department lawyer Richard C. Visek submitted a written explanation for the administration's decision to let the prince's immunity stand, adding that the government "takes no view on the merits of the present suit and reiterates its unequivocal condemnation of the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi."

Visek's statement also noted that the Constitution protects the unilateral power of the executive branch to make foreign policy decisions.

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