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Biden administration says Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince should be shielded over killing

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

To stick with legal matters involving the Biden administration for a moment, President Biden came to office promising to hold Saudi Arabia's crown prince to account for his role in the killing of a U.S. based journalist. But in a federal courthouse this week, Biden's State Department argued that Mohammed bin Salman should be shielded from lawsuits. NPR's Michele Kelemen explains.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Human rights activist Sarah Leah Whitson is with DAWN, a pro-democracy nonprofit founded by Jamal Khashoggi before he was killed by Saudi agents in the country's consulate in Istanbul in 2018. She's one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other top Saudi officials, and was disappointed that the State Department weighed in, recommending immunity for the crown prince.

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: I don't think I, or any of us, had any illusions that the Biden administration was going to dramatically change America's approach to foreign policy in the Middle East, and support for abusive gross dictatorships like Saudi Arabia's. But with regard to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, this was a personal promise that President Biden made.

KELEMEN: A White House spokesman says President Biden was aware of the State Department's legal determination that Saudi Arabia's crown prince should have immunity in that lawsuit. But John Kirby is urging activists not to read too much into this.

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JOHN KIRBY: This legal determination has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of the case itself.

KELEMEN: The State Department says there is a, quote, "unbroken practice" of the U.S. recognizing immunity for the heads of government while they're in office. The U.S. expects other countries to offer the same because it wouldn't want an American leader to be sued for things like military actions abroad. The Saudi crown prince was just recently elevated to the post of prime minister, and as long as he has that job, the State Department believes he should be immune. Kirby says the Biden administration is still reviewing its relationship with the kingdom.

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KIRBY: The president has been very, very clear, and very vocally so, about the brutal, barbaric murder of Mr. Khashoggi. And, of course, our condolences continue to go out to the family. And he has worked to hold the regime accountable.

KELEMEN: That is with sanctions and visa bans. But DAWN's Sarah Leah Whitson says the administration is sending the wrong signal to the Saudis, who she says continue to target human rights activists, including on U.S. soil.

WHITSON: Now that Mohammed bin Salman is guaranteed immunity, what is the message that sends in terms of what he can get away with in our country, much less his own country, to say nothing of other dictators and tyrants who now know that they will not be held accountable, even by a president who lectures us night and day about international law and values and human rights?

KELEMEN: She's expecting the judge to accept the State Department's suggestion of immunity, but is hoping the lawsuit will move ahead against other Saudi officials involved in Khashoggi's death. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.