A U.S. federal court dismissed a civil lawsuit against Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi after the Biden administration moved to shield the crown prince from prosecution.
The case stirred controversy after the administration stated that as the sitting head of government, the crown prince should be immune from the suit. Saudi officials had requested the administration’s support in the case, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal in March.
In a filing Tuesday, U.S. District Judge John D. Bates dismissed the case on jurisdictional grounds, citing the State Department’s determination of legal immunity for the crown prince.
“Deference to the Executive Branch’s foreign immunity determinations is motivated by ‘the caution [courts] believe appropriate of the Judicial Branch when the conduct of foreign affairs is involved,’” the decision reads. “As the branch of government primarily responsible for international affairs and diplomacy, the Executive Branch may be hindered or embarrassed should the judiciary second-guess its foreign immunity decisions.”
It continues, “Despite the Court’s uneasiness, then, with both the circumstances of bin Salman’s appointment and the credible allegations of his involvement in Khashoggi’s murder, the United States has informed the Court that he is immune, and bin Salman is therefore ‘entitled to head of state immunity … while he remains in office.’”
The crown prince was elevated to prime minister shortly before a deadline in the case for a ruling from the Justice Department and the State Department on whether he should be held accountable for Khashoggi’s brutal 2018 murder.
The royal denies the allegations and has sought sovereign immunity, which is reserved for heads of state.
Asked last month about the administration’s decision to shield the Saudi leader, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby argued that the decision “was in keeping with long-standing, not only policy but long-standing international law.”
President Joe Biden was aware of the decision in the case, Kirby said at the time.
The government’s position in the case was nonbinding, with the ultimate decision left to the court. The Biden administration did not have to weigh in with an opinion.
Biden has faced criticism for traveling to Saudi Arabia to meet with the crown prince this summer after promising on the campaign trail to take a hard line against the “pariah” kingdom over Khashoggi’s murder.
“It’s nothing to do with the merits of this case,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters. “The United States consistently has afforded head of state immunity to heads of governments.”