Biden Administration Should Not Hinder Accountability and Transparency for Murder
(Washington D.C., October 3): The Biden administration should make public the complete intelligence report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, as recommended by the government's transparency panel, and reject Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman's (MBS) plea for immunity in the lawsuit against him for the murder, said Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) today, on the fourth anniversary of Khashoggi's murder.
"The Biden administration's refusal to release all of the evidence that led the CIA to conclude the Saudi Crown Prince ordered Khashoggi's killing is a betrayal of his promise to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the heinous murder of Khashoggi," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director of DAWN. "By holding back this information even four years after the murder, Biden, like Trump before him, is shielding the murderous crown prince."
According to a September 30 Wall Street Journal report, the Public Interest Declassification Board, an expert panel appointed by the president and congressional leaders to assess classification decisions, in June recommended the full declassification of the Office of Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) report that the Biden administration had partially released in February 2021. The ODNI report concluded that MBS ordered Khashoggi's murder on October 2, 2018, but the underlying evidence on which the conclusion was based, was not released. Previous reports indicate that this evidence includes at least 11 WhatsApp messages between MBS and his adviser Saud Al-Qahtani, who organized the murder, immediately before and after the gruesome crime.
To date, the Biden administration has stayed out of the the civil lawsuit for Khashoggi's murder against MBS and his 20 co-conspirators filed by DAWN and Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi's widow. DAWN's lawsuit alleges that MBS and his co-conspirators ordered the abduction, torture, murder, dismemberment, and disappearance of Khashoggi for the purpose of silencing and preventing him from continuing his efforts in the United States as a voice for democratization in the Middle East, principally as DAWN's executive director, the role he held until his murder.
Neither the Trump nor Biden administrations have agreed to Saudi government demands to suggest immunity for MBS in multiple lawsuits pending against him in the United States. In March, MBS reportedly refused a meeting with President Biden and Biden's request to increase Saudi oil output unless the Biden administration granted him immunity from the lawsuits. On July 1, district court judge John Bates, who is hearing the case, issued a deadline of August 1st for the Biden administration to submit a statement of interest on whether MBS should be granted sovereign immunity. Prior to President Biden's scheduled trip to meet with MBS in Riyadh, the administration asked Judge Bates for more time to respond to his request; the court granted a first delay to October 3.
On September 27, just days before the October 3rd deadline for the Biden administration to weigh in on immunity, King Salman issued an unprecedented royal decree providing an exception to Article 56 of the Basic Law of Governance, which states that the King serves as prime minister. The decree appoints MBS to act as prime minister, in an apparent effort to secure "head of government" immunity. On September 30, the Justice Department asked for a 45-day delay to respond to the immunity question, citing the "new circumstances" of MBS' appointment as prime minister.
While immunity typically extends to sitting heads of state, heads of government, and foreign ministers, ultimately it is up to a court to decide whether or not the criteria for such status based immunity are met. The decree appointing MBS as prime minister is an unprecedented, exceptional and temporary modification of the Basic Law that designates the King to serve as the prime minister, and it has effect only so long as MBS is crown prince. The designation of immunity is a transparent and bad-faith ploy, designed not to add a substantive role to MBS' responsibilities, but exclusive to gain MBS immunity from lawsuits. DAWN thus urged the Biden administration and the court to reject any suggestion of immunity for MBS based on his fictitious title of Prime Minister.
"Granting MBS immunity based on a his eleventh-hour appointment as prime minister exclusively to avoid a lawsuit for this gruesome murder would create a dangerous precedent," said Reed Brody, DAWN board member and an expert on international human rights litigation. "Copycat strongmen who commit atrocities could, like MBS, obtain immunity after the fact by generating bogus titles."
"It would be painfully ironic if President Biden, who promised the whole world accountability for the murder of Khashoggi, ended up ensuring not just impunity for MBS, but a free ride for strongmen around the world who play games with titles to gain immunity," said Whitson. "On the four year anniversary of Khashoggi's murder, the very least President Biden can do is not get in the way of holding MBS and his cronies accountable."
DAWN's lawsuit includes as defendants senior advisers to MBS who played a leading role in organizing Khashoggi's murder, Saud Al-Qahtani and General Ahmed Assiri. They have joined MBS in filing a motion to dismiss the lawsuit against them. DAWN's lawsuit against MBS's co-conspirators will proceed regardless of whether or not MBS succeeds in evading jurisdiction.
"Whether or not MBS succeeds in worming out of this lawsuit, we will extract in every last bit of evidence about his role in this murders," said Whitson. "Try as he might, he will not succeed in burying his crime."