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Flip-Flopping Biden Moves to Shield Saudi Crown Prince in Journalist Killing

'It’s beyond ironic that President Biden has singlehandedly assured MBS can escape accountability when it was President Biden who promised ... he would do everything to hold him accountable...'

(Headline USA) In a dramatic about-face from the tough-talking geriatric president’s previously stated policies, the Biden administration declared Thursday that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince should be considered immune from a lawsuit over his role in the killing of a U.S.-based journalist.

In his passionate campaign trail denunciations of Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the brutal slaying, President Joe Biden had slammed the Trump administration’s policy of refusing to get involved, promising instead to make the oil-rich nation a “pariah.”

“I think it was a flat-out murder,” Biden said in a 2019 CNN town hall, as a candidate.

“And I think we should have nailed it as that,” he continued. “I publicly said at the time we should treat it that way and there should be consequences relating to how we deal with those—that power.”

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But Biden now holds a far weakend hand due to the failures of his own energy, economic and foreign policies, which last week cost him the U.S. House and will likely put his own global crimes on display in the second half of his presidency.

The administration said the senior position of the crown prince, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler and recently named prime minister as well, should shield him against a suit brought by the fiancée of slain Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and by the rights group Khashoggi founded, Democracy for the Arab World Now.

The request is non-binding and a judge will ultimately decide whether to grant immunity. But it is bound to anger human rights activists and many U.S. lawmakers, coming as Saudi Arabia has stepped up imprisonment and other retaliation against peaceful critics at home and abroad and has cut oil production while prices in the West continue to skyrocket.

The State Department on Thursday called the administration’s call to shield the Saudi crown prince from U.S. courts in Khashoggi’s killing “purely a legal determination.”

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The State Department cited what it said was longstanding precedent. Despite its recommendation to the court, the State Department said in its filing late Thursday, it “takes no view on the merits of the present suit and reiterates its unequivocal condemnation of the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”

Saudi officials killed Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. They are believed to have dismembered him, although his remains have never been found.

The U.S. intelligence community concluded Saudi Arabia’s crown prince had approved the killing of the widely known and respected journalist, who had written critically of Prince Mohammed’s harsh ways of silencing of those he considered rivals or critics.

The Biden administration statement Thursday noted visa restrictions and other penalties that it had meted out to lower-ranking Saudi officials in the death.

“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,” the State Department said.

Its statement did not mention the crown prince’s own alleged role in the 2018 killing.

Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, and DAWN sued the crown prince, his top aides and others in Washington federal court over their alleged roles in Khashoggi’s killing. Saudi Arabia says the prince had no direct role in the slaying.

“It’s beyond ironic that President Biden has singlehandedly assured MBS can escape accountability when it was President Biden who promised the American people he would do everything to hold him accountable,” the head of DAWN, Sarah Leah Whitson, said in a statement, using the prince’s acronym.

Biden in February 2021 had ruled out the U.S. government imposing punishment on Prince Mohammed himself in the killing of Khashoggi, a resident of the Washington, D.C., area.

Biden, speaking after he authorized release of a declassified version of the intelligence community’s findings on Prince Mohammed’s role in the killing, argued at the time there was no precedent for the U.S. to move against the leader of a strategic partner.

The U.S. military long has safeguarded Saudi Arabia from external enemies, in exchange for Saudi Arabia keeping global oil markets afloat.

“It’s impossible to read the Biden administration’s move today as anything more than a capitulation to Saudi pressure tactics, including slashing oil output to twist our arms to recognize MBS’s fake immunity ploy,” Whitson said.

A federal judge in Washington had given the U.S. government until midnight Thursday to express an opinion on the claim by the crown prince’s lawyers that Prince Mohammed’s high official standing renders him legally immune in the case.

The Biden administration also had the option of not stating an opinion either way.

Human rights advocates had argued that the Biden administration would embolden Prince Mohammed and other authoritarian leaders around the world in more rights abuses if it supported the crown prince’s claim that his high office shielded him from prosecution.

Prince Mohammed serves as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler in the stead of his aged father, King Salman. The Saudi king in September also temporarily transferred his title of prime minister — a title normally held by the Saudi monarch — to Prince Mohammed. Critics called it a bid to strengthen Mohammed’s immunity claim.

Adapted from reporting by the Associated Press

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