Thursday, 01 Dec 2022

Biden administration dragged feet on Mohammed bin Salman immunity ruling

Biden administration dragged feet on Mohammed bin Salman immunity ruling


Biden administration dragged feet on Mohammed bin Salman immunity ruling

When the Biden administration filed a legal brief last week calling for the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to be granted sovereign immunity in a civil case involving the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it said it was strictly a legal determination that did not reflect its views on the "heinous" killing.

"In every case, we simply follow the law. And that's what we did," Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, later said.

But a close examination of the Biden administration's actions, including interviews with legal experts and people who closely followed the matter, suggest the controversial decision was anything but straightforward.

Beginning last summer, the administration's decision to delay action and seek months of legal extensions before submitting its views on the matter before a US judge offered Saudi Arabia an unprecedented opportunity to protect Prince Mohammed through a legal manoeuvre that put him above the law and out of the reach of the US legal system. Once this had happened, the Biden administration in effect said its hands were tied.

"If you look at the sequence of events, it is hard not to see this was a battle between Biden and Mohammed bin Salman playing out," said one close observer, who asked not to be named so they could speak candidly. "I would hate to imagine that there was bartering over our judicial system and that integrity was up for grabs."

The US government was first invited to get involved in the civil case against Prince Mohammed on 1 July by the US district court judge John Bates. At the centre of the request was a lawsuit filed in 2020 against the crown prince and his associates by Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi's fiancee, which accused Prince Mohammed and his associates of conspiring with premeditation to kidnap, torture and murder Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

Bates's request was straightforward. He gave the administration 30 days - until 1 August - to submit a "statement of interest" and weigh in on whether the heir to the Saudi throne ought to be granted sovereign immunity in the case, or tell the court that it did not wish to make a statement. He also wanted the administration to weigh in on how the court might reconcile protections that are given to foreign leaders and those who are using a US law that allows victims of torture or extrajudicial killings to hold perpetrators accountable.

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