OPINION: This article may contain commentary which reflects the author's opinion.
President Joe Biden’s Department of Justice declared in a court filing on Thursday that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should receive immunity from a lawsuit filed by the fiance of slain Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
“The declaration was made in a court filing in the suit filed by the journalist’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, who slammed the Biden administration for its action, and the rights group Khashoggi founded, Democracy for the Arab World Now,” Axios reported.
A State Department spokesperson said the Justice Department filed the “suggestion of immunity,” at the request of the State Department, “based on longstanding and well-established principles” of law. This includes customary international law, “which the United States has consistently and across administrations applied to heads of state, heads of government, and foreign ministers while they are in office,” the spokesperson said.
“This Suggestion of Immunity does not reflect an assessment on the merits of the case. It speaks to nothing on broader policy or the state of relations. This was purely a legal determination.”
“The big picture: President Biden was criticized for sharing a fist bump with the prince, commonly known as MBS, after arriving in the Gulf kingdom in July. U.S. officials determined last year that MBS had approved the 2018 murder of Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. MBS has denied he ordered the dissident Saudi journalist’s killing but said he accepted ‘responsibility’ because it ‘happened under my watch,'” Axios added.
Many social media users tore into Biden for the broken promise:
BREAKING: Biden administration suggests immunity for MBS in DAWN & Cengiz lawsuit for murder of #JamalKhashoggi:
breaking promise for accountability, Biden guarantees MBS impunity. pic.twitter.com/72n3dV53Gx
— Sarah Leah Whitson (@sarahleah1) November 18, 2022
Caving into MBS' immunity ploy — when silence was an option for the administration — not only rewards MBS for his intransigence, including continued attacks on activists in the US — but signals GO to tyrants around the world. Have oil & $? You're safe whatever your crimes.
— Sarah Leah Whitson (@sarahleah1) November 18, 2022
President Biden said on the campaign trail that he wanted to turn Saudi Arabia & MBS into a “pariah,” yet he just granted MBS sovereign immunity – a step that Trump never took. Here’s why: Biden prefers to beg MBS to produce oil instead of doing it right here at home. Shameful.
— Vivek Ramaswamy (@VivekGRamaswamy) November 18, 2022
“I’m going to be very blunt. I was stunned when I read it…and I already was texting my staff trying to understand what the issues were. I think it's very complicated, but I am very disturbed by some of the things,” Rep. Debbie Dingell on Biden admin granting immunity for MBS. pic.twitter.com/HxezWuAi1V
— Kaitlan Collins (@kaitlancollins) November 18, 2022
Very ugly and dangerous decision. Biden grants sovereign immunity to MBS, Saudi Arabia's crown prince over the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi. Putin must be licking his chops knowing he can rely on this for his mass murder in Ukraine https://t.co/eSXA8iaEFW
— Bill Browder (@Billbrowder) November 18, 2022
On Friday morning, CNN corrected one of its original reports on the Biden administration’s recommendation of immunity for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
CNN reported, “New this morning, the Biden administration has determined Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, should be granted immunity” in a lawsuit over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and accompanied that reporting with a graphic that read “Biden Grants Immunity For Saudi Crown Prince in Khashoggi Murder.”
The news copy was technically not outright false, although misleading, but the graphic was false — neither President Joe Biden nor anyone in his administration “granted” immunity to MBS. The State Department and DoJ made a non-binding recommendation to the court based purely on the precedent the suit would set.
CNN’s own online report notes a department spokesperson told CNN, “This Suggestion of Immunity does not reflect an assessment on the merits of the case. It speaks to nothing on broader policy or the state of relations. This was purely a legal determination.”
Hours later, on Friday morning’s edition of CNN Newsroom With Poppy Harlow and Jim Sciutto, co-anchor Erica Hill hosted CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor Elliot Williams to discuss the issue, and referred to what the network had formerly called a “grant” of immunity as a “suggestion.” Williams explained that the “suggestion” will likely be followed by the judge — because it is consistent with the law governing heads of state.
Below is a transcript of the exchange:
ERICA HILL: So this is a, this is a suggestion of immunity. The State Department has said “this does not reflect the merits of the case.” However, it does seem to reflect MBS’s new role. He’s not just the crown prince anymore. He’s now prime minister of Saudi Arabia.
ELLIOT WILLIAMS: So a couple of things. One, it is a suggestion of immunity, but courts almost never, and I would say I think it’s safe to say would never override a recommendation from the Justice Department that an individual like this be granted immunity. What happens is, the big picture is that in international law, foreign leaders are not subjected to being sued or brought into court in different countries. It’s just not a satisfying result because of the fact that, number one, the American government has acknowledged how vicious and heinous this crime was. And number two, that he was a part of it back at the time and then and then hinting at it in the letter today. But there’s just no great outcome here.
ERICA HILL: So there’s no great outcome but. So just to confirm then, this is, this is ultimately up to a judge. But you’re saying it would be very surprising if the judge did not go along with this suggestion?
ELLIOT WILLIAMS: That’s absolutely it. I mean, what it is, is the Justice Department states in a letter to the court, this individual ought to be granted immunity because he is a foreign leader. Now, this would have been a very different decision two or three months ago before he was named head of state. He was, I guess, the head of the Defense Department in Saudi Arabia before that. And that person could be subjected to being sued in an American court. But unfortunately, now he’s head of state and he won’t. And again, that doesn’t take away from the fact that, again, we’ve acknowledged that he did it.