WASHINGTON (AP) — It raised eyebrows six weeks ago when Saudi Arabia’s aging king, Salman, appointed his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as prime minister. The laws of the kingdom provide for the king as prime minister. King Salman had to announce a temporary exception for the loan of the title, and at the same time make it clear that he was holding key duties.
But the move paid off on Thursday, when the Biden administration announced that Prince Mohammed’s status as prime minister shields him from a US lawsuit over what US intelligence says is his role in the 2018 killing by Saudi officials of a US-based journalist. A judge will now decide whether Prince Mohammed He enjoys immunity.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby insisted on Friday that the US administration’s announcement of the immunity of the Saudi crown prince was merely a “legal decision” that “has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of the case itself.”
Many experts on international law agreed with the administration—but only because the king elevated his title to crown prince in late September, before a scheduled US decision.
“It was remarkable that the United States denied the immunity of Muhammad bin Salman to the head of state after his appointment as prime minister, just as it was possible for the United States to recognize the immunity of Muhammad bin Salman to the head of state before his appointment.” William S. Dodge, professor at UC Davis School of LawWritten using the prince’s initials.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Vedant Patel gave examples of previous cases in which the US has recognized immunity for heads of government or state – Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Narendra Modi of India, on allegations of human rights abuse.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Washington by the fiancée of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi and a Washington-based rights group. It accuses the crown prince and about 20 aides, officers and others of conspiring and carrying out Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The murder, which Biden condemned during his election trial in 2019 and described as a “categorical murder” that should have consequences for the Saudi rulers, is at the heart of the dispute between the strategic partners, the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Before and immediately after taking office, Biden pledged to take a stand on the Saudi crown prince, as part of a presidency based on rights and values. But Biden has since offered fists and other conciliatory gestures in the hope – so far frustrated – of persuading the crown prince to pump more oil into global markets.
The Biden administration argues that Saudi Arabia is too important to the global economy and regional security to allow the United States to move away from the decades-old partnership.
But human rights advocates, some top Democratic lawmakers and Khashoggi’s newspaper, The Washington Post, on Friday condemned the administration’s move.
Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, wrote on Twitter: “Jamal died again today.”
Fred Ryan, the newspaper’s publisher, called it a “cynical and calculated effort” to manipulate the law and protect Prince Mohammed. Khashoggi wrote columns for the newspaper that, in his last months, criticized violations of the crown prince’s rights.
“By going along with this scheme, President Biden is turning his back on the core principles of press freedom and equality,” Ryan wrote.
The Cengiz and Khashoggi rights group, Democracy for the Arab World Now, argued that the crown prince’s change of title in late September was nothing more than a maneuver to escape US courts, without legal status or any change in power or duties.
Saudi Arabia has not commented publicly on the administration’s decision. Spokespeople at the Saudi Embassy and State Department did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Friday.
Saudi Arabia blames “rogue” officials for Khashoggi’s death. It says that the prince did not play any role.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, unlike a constitutional system like the United Kingdom, where it is ruled by a prime minister rather than a king or queen.
“Very pathetic,” Sarah Leah Whitson, president of the Khashoggi Rights Group, said Friday of the change of address.
“If anything, it showed how much Mohammed bin Salman feared and still fears our cause and actual accountability and actual discovery of his crimes,” said Sarah Leah Whitson.
The Biden administration appears to have rejected its group’s argument that changing Prince Mohammed’s last surname contravenes ruling Saudi Arabia 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 for years has been a key decision-maker and actor in the kingdom, including representing the king abroad.
Some Western media presented the temporary transfer of the post of prime minister as King Salman – who is in his late 80s – transferring responsibility to the 37-year-old Prince Mohammed.
A federal judge had given the United States until Thursday to give his opinion, or not, on the crown prince’s claim that his status shields him from US courts.
Human rights advocates had hoped until the moment the lawsuit was filed that the administration would remain silent, giving no opinion on Prince Mohammed’s immunity in either case.
Sovereign immunity, a concept rooted in international law, states that states and their officials are protected from certain legal actions in the courts of other foreign countries.
Previous criminal and civil cases against foreign governments and leaders in which the United States did not intervene generally involve countries with which the United States does not have diplomatic relations or whose heads of state or government are not recognized as legitimate.
The cases against Iran and North Korea seeking compensation for the death or injury of US citizens are notable examples of cases in which the executive branch did not intervene in an opinion about sovereign immunity.
By contrast, the United States has full diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. On Thursday, the State Department stressed that respecting the principle for leaders of other governments helps ensure that courts in other countries do not seek to drag US presidents before them to answer lawsuits there.
Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the US decision had “nothing whatsoever” to do with “strained” relations between the US and Saudi Arabia over Saudi-led oil production cuts, and other matters.
Kirby said that Biden has been “very, very frank” about the “brutal and barbaric murder of Khashoggi.”
But some of Biden’s fellow Democrats in Congress have expressed disappointment with the administration’s move.
“Is the administration disregarding its confidence in the judgment of its own intelligence community?” Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, said in a statement. “If Khashoggi’s friends and family are denied a path to accountability in the US court system, where in the world can they go?”
Whitson, who is in charge of Khashoggi’s human rights group, said the lawsuit will continue against those named in the lawsuit.
Associated Press writer Amer Madani contributed to this report.