(Reuters) - The Biden administration ruled on Thursday that Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has immunity from a lawsuit over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, drawing immediate condemnation from the slain journalist's former fiancee.
Khashoggi was killed and dismembered in October 2018 by Saudi agents in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, an operation which U.S. intelligence believed was ordered by Prince Mohammed, who has been the kingdom's de facto ruler for several years.
"Jamal died again today," Khashoggi's ex-fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, said on Twitter minutes after the news became public. She added later: "We thought maybe there would be a light to justice from #USA But again, money came first."
The Saudi government communications office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.
A spokesperson for the Saudi consulate in Washington could not be reached for comment on Thursday evening, after business hours.
“This is a legal determination made by the State Department under longstanding and well-established principles of customary international law," a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council said in a written statement. "It has nothing to do with the merits of the case."
The spokesperson referred further questions to the State and Justice Departments.
In a document filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Justice Department attorneys wrote that "the doctrine of head of state immunity is well established in customary international law."
Justice Department lawyers said that the executive branch of U.S. government, referring to the Biden Administration, had "determined that defendant bin Salman, as the sitting head of a foreign government, enjoys head of state immunity from the jurisdiction of U.S. courts as a result of that office."
In late September, Saudi King Salman named Prince Mohammed prime minister in a royal decree which a Saudi official said was in line with responsibilities that the crown prince was already exercising.
"The Royal Order leaves no doubt that the Crown Prince is entitled to status-based immunity," lawyers for the prince said in an Oct. 3 petition requesting a federal district court in Washington dismiss the case, citing other cases where the United States has recognised immunity for a foreign head of state.
Biden was criticized for fist-bumping the crown prince on a visit to Saudi Arabia in July to discuss energy and security issues. The White House said Biden had told Prince Mohammed that he considered him responsible for Khashoggi's killing.
The prince, known by his initials MbS, has denied ordering Khashoggi's killing but acknowledged later that it took place "under my watch."
The longstanding alliance between the two countries was strained in October when a decision by the OPEC+ oil producer group led by Saudi Arabia to cut oil production unleashed a war of words between the White house and Riyadh.
The decision had raised concerns in Washington about the possibility of higher gasoline prices ahead of the November midterm elections. This latest move shows the administration's weakness vis-a-vis the kingdom, some analysts said.
"Deciding to grant sovereign immunity to MbS will send a very clear signal to him: that he should continue asserting Saudi Arabia's nationalist interests without compromise, even when these go directly against core interests of the United States," Cinzia Bianco, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said.
Khashoggi had criticized the crown prince's policies in Washington Post columns. He had traveled to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain papers he needed to marry Cengiz, a Turkish citizen.
"It's beyond ironic that President Biden has single-handedly assured MBS can escape accountability when it was President Biden who promised the American people he would do everything to hold him accountable. Not even the Trump administration did this," Sarah Lee Whitson, a spokeswoman for Democracy for the Arab World Now, said in a written statement.
In a highly charged global atmosphere, the United States is keen to prevent its long-time ally from further distancing itself.
"Amid great power competition with Russia and China, the United States recognizes that Saudi has other options. And a further pivot of Saudi to the East must be prevented at all costs," Andreas Krieg, professor at King's College in London, said.