Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday defended the administration’s decision to grant immunity for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but said the opinion based on “long-standing legal practice” does not reflect the “current status” of U.S.-Saudi relations.
It was a “legal matter,” Blinken told reporters from Qatar.
The secretary of state said that given his new position as Saudi prime minister, as a “head of state,” bin Salman was legally “entitled to immunity” in the legal challenges he faced over his alleged role in the brutal killing of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
The administration’s decision was made in response to a lawsuit levied against the Crown Prince by Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancée, in 2020 which alleged that the prince and 28 others “kidnaped, bound, drugged, tortured, and assassinated” Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul before then dismembering his body.
Khashoggi’s body was never recovered.
“This is a determination that we’ve made in dozens, hundreds of cases over the years. And in every case, we simply follow the law,” Blinken said, referring to the decision issued Thursday by the State Department.
President Biden in 2019 called the alleged killing of Khashoggi – who was critical of bin Salman – “flat-out murder” and a U.S. intelligence report released in February 2021 found that the Crown Prince approved the capture that led to the death of the Washington Post journalist.
The Biden administration then announced a “Khashoggi Ban” that restricted visas for any individual directly involved in “serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities, including those that suppress, harass, surveil, threaten, or harm journalists, activists, or other persons perceived to be dissidents for their work.”
The ban was not limited to individuals involved in the Khashoggi killing.
The Biden administration received swift backlash following last week’s announcement, including from Washington Post CEO Fred Ryan, who said the decision essentially gave the Saudi royal family a “license to kill.”
On Tuesday, Blinken looked to set the record straight and said the decision was based on a court opinion and “does not speak in any way to the merits of the case” or the “current status of the bilateral relationship.”
“Our review of that relationship is, is ongoing,” he added.