The Department of State maintains that foreign heads of state, such as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, cannot be sued in American civil courts.
The Biden administration has insisted that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman cannot be subject to a lawsuit seeking to hold him and his government accountable for the killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
According to ABC News, a legal adviser for the State Department notified the U.S. Department of Justice that the prince, “as a sitting head of government,” is “immune while in office from the jurisdiction of the United States District Court.”
ABC News notes that, while the determined was issued by the State Department, the decision was purportedly approved by the White House.
Vedant Patel, a spokesperson for the Department of State, said that granting immunity to foreign heads of state is “normal practice” that has been “applied consistently across administrations.”
Another spokesperson for the department said that the matter is “purely a legal determination.”
“The U.S. Government’s suggestion of immunity in this case is based on longstanding and well-established principles of common law, including 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 Department of State spokesperson said. “It speaks to nothing on broader policy or the state of relations.”
The Hill reports that the lawsuit had originally been filed by Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s Turkish-origin fiancé, and Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN).
Despite the State Department’s opinion, the matter of Mohammed bin Salman’s immunity—or lack thereof—must ultimately be decided by a federal court.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that the State Department’s legal assessment has “nothing to do with the merits of the case.”
“Our hearts go out to [Cengiz],” Jean-Pierre said in a statement. “We understand she lost someone that she loved very dearly.”
The Biden administration’s decision has been criticized by the press, with the publisher and C.E.O. of The Washington Post issuing a written statement accusing Washington of “granting a license to kill to one of the world’s most egregious human-rights abusers.”
Khashoggi, a journalist and outspoken critic of the Saudi government’s human rights record, was a columnist for the Post.
The decision has also been decried by the plaintiffs in the case, including Cengiz and DAWN.
“Jamal died again today,” Cengiz wrote on Twitter.
Sarah Leah Wilson, the executive director of DAWN, told ABC News that the Biden administration’s position indicates that it has folded to the kingdom’s pressure tactics.
“It’s beyond ironic that President Biden has single-handedly assured [Mohammed bin Salman] can escape accountability when it was President Biden who promised the American people he would do everything to hold him accountable,” Wilson said. “Not even the Trump administration did this.”
The State Department has maintained that its position is consistent, and that the Biden administration has moved to not only sanction senior officials suspected of involvement in Khashoggi’s death but to prevent their travel to the United States.
“From the earliest days of this Administration, the United States Government has expressed its grave concerns regarding Saudi agents’ responsibility for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. U.S. officials have raised our concerns publicly and with the most senior levels of the Saudi government,” the State Department said in a statement.