White House seeks to delay decision on Prince Mohammed immunity over Khashoggi murder

The Biden administration asked a US judge for a 60-day extension before it formally weighed in on whether Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, ought to be granted sovereign immunity in a case involving the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

The Department of Justice said in a filing before a US district court that it had initiated a “decision-making process” about whether it would file a statement of interest in the case but that it would not be able to comply with the court’s requested deadline of 1 August.

“The United States is diligently considering the Court’s inquiry but the process for doing so requires consultation among multiple entities within the Executive Branch with respect to complex issues of international and domestic law,” the filing said.

The judge in the case granted the US government its request and gave it until 3 October to submit a statement of interest.

The request comes just days after US president Joe Biden returned from a controversial trip to Saudi Arabia in which he met with Prince Mohammed and claimed to have raised Khashoggi’s murder in a private conversation with the crown prince.

Khashoggi, a Saudi native who lived in Virginia and wrote critically about the Saudi crown prince’s crackdown on expression and dissent within the kingdom, was murdered by Saudi agents in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. An unclassified intelligence report into the murder, released by the Biden administration shortly after the president took office, concluded that Prince Mohammed, who is known as “MBS”, ordered the murder.

Biden promised on the presidential election campaign trail to treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” in the wake of the murder, and refused to personally acknowledge the crown prince’s role as de facto ruler of Saudi until his recent visit.

Biden said after his meeting with Prince Mohammed that he had confronted the crown prince about Khashoggi’s murder and suggested he told the prince that he held him personally responsible for Khashoggi’s murder. But Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, said he “didn’t hear” Biden say that to Prince Mohammed. In response to that claim, Biden said Al-Jubeir’s account was dishonest.

Al-Jubeir also stated in a recent interview that Saudi Arabia cared deeply about human rights and maintained the official Saudi position that the Khashoggi killing – which investigations have shown was premeditated – was a rogue operation that occurred without the knowledge of MBS.

Attempts to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the murder have so far have failed. A trial held against unnamed defendants in Saudi Arabia was widely condemned as a sham, and Turkey recently ended its own trial in the murder. The only remaining avenue for MBS to face some legal consequences is in the US, where Khashoggi’s fiance, Hatice Cengiz, has filed a civil lawsuit against the crown prince for ordering the killing.

John Bates, a district court judge, said in early July that he was inviting the US government to weigh in on legal questions about whether the trial should go forward, and whether the US had an interest in the case. He also said he would hold a hearing on 31 August after motions to dismiss the civil case by Prince Mohammed and others.

The motions to dismiss the civil case rest on claims by Prince Mohammed’s lawyers that the DC court lacks jurisdiction over the crown prince.

In his response to the government’s filing, Judge Bates said he welcomed the parties in the case until 20 July to state their views on whether the 31 August hearing should be delayed.

“For the Biden administration, it is a whole different level to go out of the way to give MBS immunity in court over the most documented assassination that MBS ever did. To give legal immunity would give MBS a licence to kill,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, the research director of Dawn, a non-profit that promotes democracy in the Middle East that was founded by Khashoggi and a co-plaintiff on the case against the crown prince.