The United States says it is not seeking to smooth frayed bilateral ties with Saudi Arabia after Amnesty International blasted the Biden administration over granting immunity to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) over journalist Jamal Khashoggi's 2018 murder.
"This legal determination has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of the case itself," White House national security spokesman John Kirby said on Friday, referring to the civil lawsuit against the crown prince and other Saudis by Khashoggi's fiancee Hatice Cengiz.
The White House issued the statement after Amnesty International condemned the Biden administration and called the act "a deep betrayal."
"The US government should hang its head in shame. This is nothing more than a sickening, total, deep betrayal,” Amnesty's Secretary General Agnes Callamard said in a statement.
"First the evidence of the Crown Prince's involvement in Jamal Khashoggi's murder was disregarded by President Trump, then President Biden's fist bump -- it all suggests shady deals made throughout."
The US State Department on Thursday gave bin Salman immunity from the lawsuit despite Joe Biden’s earlier promise to hold the de facto Saudi ruler accountable for the crime.
Citing its constitutional authority as well as customary international law, the State Department said, “Prime Minister bin Salman as a sitting head of government is immune while in office from the jurisdiction of the United States District Court in this suit.”
Kirby said on Friday the determination "has absolutely nothing to do with the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia, which as you know, is tense right now.”
President Biden "has been very, very clear, very vocally so, about the brutal and barbaric murder of Mr. Khashoggi," Kirby added.
Amnesty International blasted the Saudi monarchy for naming bin Salman as prime minister in a royal decree, a move that was apparently designed to skirt exposure in the civil action filed by Khashoggi's fiancee.
Callamard added that it was "beyond cynical" for the Saudi monarchy to seek to extend immunity to the prince by declaring him prime minister.
"It is disappointing that the US government has given effect to this legal ruse," she said, adding it "sends a deplorable message that those in power...are free to operate above the law with total impunity."
But White House spokesman Kirby said Biden "has worked to hold the regime accountable."
Kirby also mentioned Biden's order for a review of the US-Saudi relationship.
He added that President Biden wants to make sure the relationship "is serving the interests of our national security and the American people.”
Khashoggi, who was murdered and dismembered by a Saudi "hit squad" at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, used to be a vocal critic of the Saudi regime and the crown prince.
According to reports, he was lured into the diplomatic mission under the pretext of being provided with papers for his wedding. He was suffocated and dismembered while his fiance waited outside for him.
Saudi Arabia initially issued conflicting stories about Khashoggi’s disappearance, but eventually said that he had been killed in a “rogue” operation.
Despite denials by Riyadh, some Western governments and spy agencies said the crown prince had ordered the assassination, causing a global uproar.
The CIA in its report also concluded that the murder was directly ordered by the Saudi de-facto ruler, and the claim has been corroborated by many leading global human rights organizations.
The US president said in July he told the Saudi crown prince that he hold him responsible for the murder of Khashoggi.
The 37-year-old crown prince refused to own responsibility for the diabolic crime.
"He basically said that he was not personally responsible for it," Biden said of the crown prince's response. "I indicated that I thought he was."
Making Saudi a 'pariah'
As a presidential candidate, Biden had vowed to make Riyadh “pay the price and make them in fact the pariah that they are” on the world stage over Khashoggi’s murder.
His speeches and statements suggested that he was likely to adopt a tougher line on the kingdom than his predecessor Donald Trump.
“We will make clear that America will never again check its principles at the door just to buy oil or sell weapons,” Biden told the Council on Foreign Relations in November 2020.
“America needs to insist on responsible Saudi actions and impose consequences for reckless ones," he added.
Energy interests, however, prompted the US president and his allies to decide not to isolate the Persian Gulf country that has been seeking stronger ties with Russia and China.
Apart from sanctions on some lower-ranking Saudi officials, no other punitive measures have been taken against the kingdom.
Asked how he could be sure Saudi Arabia would not murder someone else like Khashoggi, Biden said “…what a silly question. How could I possibly be sure of any of that?”
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