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Khashoggi murder: Biden defends decision to not punish MBS

US president says sanctions against Saudi Arabia's powerful crown prince would have been unprecedented
Saudi government agents murdered Khashoggi at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 (AFP/File photo)
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Washington

US President Joe Biden defended his administration's decision to not impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite acknowledging that the royal was responsible for the murder of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In an interview with ABC News aired in parts on Wednesday, Biden credited himself for releasing the US intelligence community's findings on the killing but said sanctioning bin Salman would have been unprecedented.

"I'm the guy that released the report," Biden said, referring to the assessment by the Office of Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) that was made public last month.

Former President Donald Trump had resisted legally binding calls by Congress to release the report, which concluded that the crown prince, known as MBS, approved the murder.

But Biden has refused to take measures to penalise bin Salman personally despite pressure from lawmakers, rights groups and press freedom advocates. Instead, the US administration expanded sanctions against the team that carried out the operation.

"We held accountable all the people in that organization - but not the crown prince, because we have never that I'm aware of, when we have an alliance with a country, gone to the acting head of state and punished that person and ostracised him," Biden said, according to a partial transcript released by ABC.

Biden's statement contradicts previous assertions by the White House that King Salman is the US president's counterpart and MBS is not the head of state in Saudi Arabia.

Recalibrating relations

The US administration has repeatedly said it seeks to reorient the relationship with Riyadh while remaining committed to the kingdom's security.

"What we've done by the actions that we've taken is really not to rupture the relationship but to recalibrate it to be more in line with our interests and our values," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last month after the release of the report.

Critics of the administration's unwillingness to punish MBS say Biden is letting the mastermind of the assassination get away with murder while imposing sanctions on officials who were taking orders.

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"The world cannot move on from the Khashoggi murder and it should not move on," UN investigator Agnes Callamard told MEE earlier this month. 

"The case is not closed and will not be closed as long as the masterminds have not been held accountable. The ODNI report is part of our search for justice, of the journey for justice. It is not the end of the journey."

Raed Jarrar, advocacy director at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), noted that Biden's own administration does not consider the crown prince to be the head of state in Saudi Arabia.

"But even if MBS were indeed the acting head of state, citing precedent for failing to hold abusive allies accountable is not a good reason to repeat the same mistake," Jarrar told MEE.

"DAWN will continue to work with our partners and with Congress to push the Biden administration to sanction MBS."

Khashoggi, a former Saudi government insider and journalist who wrote for the Washington Post and Middle East Eye, resided in Virginia before his death.

Saudi government agents killed him and dismembered his body at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. 

Riyadh initially insisted that Khashoggi left the building alive before acknowledging more than two weeks after the assassination that the journalist had been killed. 

Saudi officials maintain the murder was a rogue operation that happened without the knowledge of top leaders. But the US report stresses the assassination, which involved close aides to MBS, could not have happened without his approval.

"We base this assessment on the Crown Prince's control of decisionmaking in the Kingdom since 2017, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Mohammad bin Salman's protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince's support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi," the US intelligence assessment says.

'Pariah'

The murder sent shockwaves throughout Washington, amplifying criticism against the kingdom in Congress. But then-president Trump moved to shield Riyadh and particularly the crown prince from the fallout.

As a candidate, Biden had harsh words for Saudi leaders over the murder, calling the kingdom a "pariah".

On the second anniversary of the murder last October, weeks from the US election, Biden vowed to push for a "more just and free world" in the slain journalist's memory.

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"Two years ago, Saudi operatives, reportedly acting at the direction of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, murdered and dismembered Saudi dissident, journalist, and US resident Jamal Khashoggi," Biden said in a statement at the time.

"His offense - for which he paid with his life - was criticizing the policies of his government. Today, I join many brave Saudi women and men, activists, journalists, and the international community in mourning Khashoggi's death and echoing his call for people everywhere to exercise their universal rights in freedom."

US Democratic lawmakers introduced two bills early in March to impose sanctions on the crown prince.

"This is a test of our humanity," Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who introduced one of the measures, said in a statement accompanying her bill. 

"If the United States of America truly supports freedom of expression, democracy and human rights, there is no reason not to sanction Mohammed bin Salman - a man our own intelligence found to have approved the murder of US resident and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi."

Riyadh has rejected the findings of the US report, calling it "negative, false and unacceptable".