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Opinion | Biden grants legal immunity to MBS, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince

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The Biden administration granted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman legal immunity, a protection that even President Donald Trump’s administration did not offer.

For critics of MBS, as the Saudi leader is known, the immunity decision is a slap in the face. It is likely to spark new protests in Congress and among human rights activists that the Biden administration is accommodating Muhammad for reasons of realpolitik — and endangering its values ​​in the process.

The decision was prompted by a lawsuit in federal district court in Washington against MBS and about 20 other defendants by the fiancee of Jamal Khashoggi, a Post contributing columnist who was killed by Saudi operatives in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. The case claims that the crown prince and his co-accused were responsible for the murder.

Read this column in Arabic.

The action is the latest in a cascade of controversies that has followed the assassination, which the CIA concluded was an operation authorized by MBS. The Trump administration has protected the Saudi leader, but President Biden initially claimed he would hold him accountable, describing him as a “pariah.” But over time, Biden unfortunately capitulated to what he saw as a need to repair relations with the man who could be the king of Saudi Arabia for decades.

A State Department official said the decision to grant immunity was a “purely legal decision” prompted by MBS’s recent elevation to prime minister. But the State Department and the White House could have intervened on policy grounds to prevent the legal exemption, which MBS has been seeking for more than two years, from being granted.

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US District Judge John Bates, who is hearing the Khashoggi case, asked the Justice Department in July for a ruling on whether MBS should be granted sovereign immunity, as his lawyers had requested. On September 27, three days before the deadline for the Justice Department’s response, Saudi King Salman declared his son prime minister. That prompted Thursday’s ruling that MBS was entitled to sovereign immunity as a “head of government.” Bates could potentially reject the State Department application, but such a rejection of a government option he requested would be unlikely.

The State Department’s decision was filed late Thursday. “The United States respectfully informs the court that defendant Mohammed bin Salman, the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is the sitting head of government and is accordingly immune from this suit,” the filing states.

“The Biden administration’s proposal of immunity for MBS is not only wrong as a matter of law, it is wrong as a matter of policy,” argued Sarah Leah Whitson, who heads the ​from a group called Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN , which filed the case with Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz. Whitson argued that the immunity grant was “an undeserved concession” to the Saudi leader that “will no doubt encourage him to continue his relentless abuse.”

MBS began seeking immunity in US courts after being named in a lawsuit filed in August 2020 in federal district court in Washington by Saad Aljabri, a former top Saudi counterterrorism official. Muhammad’s lawyers asked for the case to be dismissed because of what they claim are sovereign immunity and other issues. The Trump administration has not granted that request.

Aljabri, in his 2021 amended complaint, accused the Saudi leader of sending a hit squad to kill him in 2018 in Canada, where he fled after MBS fired him in 2015 and after MBS in 2017 appointed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who overthrew Aljabri worked closely with the Saudi Ministry of Interior.

The Biden State Department was deliberating whether the immunity issue was a policy question, involving significant human rights issues, rather than simply a legal matter, an administration official told me. But there was a strong legal argument that prime ministers regularly receive immunity. And in the end, as was so often the case with MBS, the Biden administration acquiesced to the Saudi leader’s desires.

The immunity decision does not simply derail the lawsuit by Khashoggi’s fiancee. This would protect the crown prince from legal action over issues involving travel bans and other alleged human rights violations. According to media reports, at least two American citizens, Saad Almadi and Mohammed Salem, have been banned from leaving Saudi Arabia since Biden’s visit to the kingdom in July.

The president’s fist bump during that trip became a symbol of political accommodation for the Saudi leader and his demands. The grant of immunity will not only give him a friendly welcome, but a legal shield that will be hard to break.

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