A federal judge in Washington DC set aside the suit that had been brought by the fiancee of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who was murdered in 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
US intelligence concluded that the assassination of the reporter had been ordered by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MBS. Saudi Arabia and MBS have denied such claims, alleging the 59-year-old had been killed by “rogue agents”.
In 2020, Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancée, and the Washington-based human rights organisation that the late journalist founded, brought the lawsuit against MBS in 2020. They alleged the team of assassins “kidnapped, bound, drugged, tortured, and assassinated” Khashoggi and then dismembered his body. His remains have never been found.
While he was campaigning for the White House, Mr Biden described Saudi Arabia as a “pariah nation” and said he would seek to hold it accountable.
But last week, in the latest of a series of reversals of what Mr Biden said on the campaign trail, his administration announced it believed the crown prince qualified for immunity as a foreign head of government, after he was recently made the Saudi prime minister.
“Mohammed bin Salman, the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is the sitting head of government and, accordingly, is immune from this suit,” said a filing from the Department of Justice, while calling the murder “heinous”.
On Tuesday, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, bowing to the Biden administration’s insistence that the prince was legally immune.
District of Columbia District Judge John Bates said he was heeding the US government’s motion to shield the crown prince despite what he said were “credible allegations of his involvement in Khashoggi’s murder”.
In a 25-page filing, the court said: “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.’”
It added: “Accordingly, the claims against bin Salman will be dismissed based on head-of-state immunity.”
Critics of the Biden administration’s move have hit out.
“Biden saved the murderer by granting immunity,” tweeted Ms Cengiz last week. “He saved the criminal and got involved in the crime himself. Let's see who will save you in the hereafter?”
Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post, had something of a complicated personal life.
In addition to being engaged to Ms Hatice, three months before his murder by Saudi agents, Khashoggi had wed Hanan El-Atr, 52, an Egyptian woman, in a Muslim ceremony in northern Virginia.
Ms El-Atr spent two years, and had to file a lawsuit, before she could obtain the certificate proving she and the famed journalist were married on 2 June 2018 in Alexandria, an event of which she has many photographs. She wore a full white wedding gown and carried a bouquet of white roses.
She believes both she and her late husband were spied on electronically. A similar claim has been made by Ms Hatice, and powerful spyware was found on their phones.
“My message is that his sacrifice of his life was not for his own benefit, but to help those who are behind bars in Saudi Arabia,” Ms El-Atr told The Independent last year.
The judge on Tuesday also dismissed the two other Saudi plaintiffs, Saud al-Qahtani and Ahmed al-Assiri, both senior Saudi officials, saying the US court lacked jurisdiction over them.