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Biden administration moves to shield the Saudi crown prince in journalist's killing

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The Biden administration wants the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, to be shielded from a lawsuit over the slaying of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It's a move that contradicts what President Biden said about the crown prince during his campaign in 2019.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Khashoggi was, in fact, murdered and dismembered, and I believe in the order of the crown prince. And I would make it very clear. We were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them. We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.

FADEL: Ellen Knickmeyer is a correspondent at the Associated Press and reported on this turnaround.

Good morning, Ellen.

ELLEN KNICKMEYER: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So a lawsuit against the Saudi crown prince was brought by Khashoggi's fiancee and by the group Khashoggi founded, Democracy for the Arab World Now. Why is the Biden administration now trying to give the crown prince immunity here?

KNICKMEYER: The Biden administration says as a matter of legal precedence and for protection of American officials abroad and around the world that it wants courts to say that sitting heads of government have legal immunity from lawsuits like this.

FADEL: So that's because now the crown prince is the prime minister of Saudi Arabia. That's the argument that the government's making?

KNICKMEYER: They say he's the sitting head of government. He's currently the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. And in September, the king named him prime minister as well.

FADEL: Now, listeners, we heard what Biden said about the crown prince and talking about the idea of making this government a pariah. And yet here you have the administration in court. How do they rectify that?

KNICKMEYER: The Biden administration took pains in its filings and its comments last night when it asked for immunity for the crown prince to say it wasn't ruling on the merits of the lawsuit and, you know, that this was purely a legal issue about immunity for heads of state. The Biden administration - there's a strong contingent within the Biden administration that believes the U.S. and Saudi Arabia need to get back to more normal relations, both to, you know, encourage Saudi Arabia to start pumping more oil again and for regional security overall.

FADEL: Have we heard anything from Khashoggi's fiancee about the ruling.

KNICKMEYER: The people associated with - the people who brought the lawsuit - I've heard from them - from the rights group that he founded shortly before he was killed - not long before he was killed.

FADEL: Yeah.

KNICKMEYER: And they're very disappointed. They say Biden is going back on, you know, what he promised, that this is going to encourage Mohammed bin Salman and other authoritarian leaders around the world in rights abuses. And they accuse him of, you know, just kind of backing down for the sake of oil.

FADEL: And Khashoggi's fiancee wrote on Twitter about her late fiance, Jamal died again today. What have we heard from the State Department separate from - have they made any comments about the ruling?

KNICKMEYER: Right. The State Department says it was a matter of legal - just a matter of a legal point. I will say, Saudi exiles say that the State Department or the Biden administration could have remained silent, that it didn't have to offer an opinion either way. They had been hoping last night that that's what would happen.

FADEL: AP's Ellen Knickmeyer. Thank you so much for your time.

KNICKMEYER: Yeah, my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.