US State Department Cites Immunity Given to Modi While Justifying the Same for MBS

The US state department on Friday explained that the immunity afforded to the Saudi Crown Prince “flowed directly” from his role as the head of government, just as Modi’s had after he became prime minister of India in 2014.

New Delhi: The Biden administration has cited the immunity granted to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a lawsuit over his role in the Gujarat riots as one of the past precedents to justify the use of legal cover given to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over a case filed on the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In 2018, Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and a Saudi dissident living in exile, went missing after he went inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain paperwork for an impending marriage. Saudi agents killed and dismembered him in an operation, which US intelligence believed was ordered by the Crown Prince.

The Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), has denied ordering the killing but later acknowledged that it took place “under my watch”.

During his presidential election campaign, Biden had given assurances that he would ensure that the killing would have consequences and vowed to treat the Saudi ruler as a “pariah”. However, as President, Biden had to ease tensions in a bid to lower world oil prices, including visiting the Saudi Kingdom and fist-bumping the Crown Prince.

In a court filing last Thursday, the US Department of Justice said that it has determined that the Crown Prince has legal immunity from the 2018 lawsuit filed against him by Khashoggi’s fiancée and rights group, Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN).

The US state department explained further on Friday that the immunity “flows directly from the crown prince’s role as prime minister, which is the head of government, which he was appointed to earlier this year”.

Asserting that it was not based on the merits of the case, the US state department’s principal deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel reiterated, “This designation only applies to the crown prince in his role of head of government”.

When asked if there had been previous cases, Patel answered that it was “not the first time” that the US government has designated immunity to foreign leaders and listed four instances.

“Some examples: President Aristide in Haiti in 1993; President Mugabe in Zimbabwe in 2001; Prime Minister Modi in India in 2014; and President Kabila in the DRC in 2018. This is a consistent practice that we have afforded to heads of state, heads of government, and foreign ministers,” he said.

Patel was harking back to the chronicle that began with Modi’s previous denial of a US visa as Gujarat chief minister in 2005 on the grounds of being “responsible for the performance of state institutions” at the time of the 2002 riots.

After the 2014 election victory, Modi was quickly given an invitation by Washington. The signs of reconciliation had already been showing ahead of the general elections, when the US ambassador went to Ahmedabad for a two-hour meeting with Modi.

Just before his first trip to the US as Prime Minister, a US federal court issued summons for Modi to respond to a lawsuit that accused him of human rights violations in connection with the Gujarat riots.

Three weeks later, in October 2014, then US attorney Preet Bharara told the Federal court in New York that the US government had determined that “Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as the sitting head of a foreign government, enjoys head of state immunity from the jurisdiction of US courts”.

The executive’s determination of immunity is non-binding, and it is left to the judge to decide on its applicability. The US District Judge upheld the state department’s determination of Modi’s immunity and dismissed the case in January 2015.


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