Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has immunity from a lawsuit over the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the United States has said.
The US administration declared on Thursday he should be considered immune from prosecution over the brutal killing.
Khashoggi, a dissident journalist and critic, was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. His remains have never been found.
US intelligence services had concluded that the Saudi crown prince likely approved the killing. Saudi Arabia says the prince had no direct role in the slaying.
In a surprise move, the US administration now says bin Salman could not be prosecuted because of his senior position as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler and prime minister.
He had faced a lawsuit from Khashoggi's former fiancée and Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a human rights group founded by the journalist.
The US request is non-binding and a judge will ultimately decide whether to grant immunity.
The US State Department stated that it “takes no view on the merits of the present suit and reiterates its unequivocal condemnation of the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi”.
But the statement represents a significant u-turn from President Joe Biden's administration, which regularly condemned MBS over Khashoggi's murder.
The US decision is also likely to anger human rights activists and lawmakers, as Saudi Arabia steps up the imprisonment of opponents.
"Jamal died again today" with the ruling, Khashoggi's ex-fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, wrote on Twitter.
“It’s beyond ironic that President Biden has singlehandedly assured MBS can escape accountability when it was President Biden who promised the American people he would do everything to hold him accountable,” the head of DAWN, Sarah Leah Whitson, said in a statement.
"It’s impossible to read the Biden administration’s move today as anything more than a capitulation to Saudi pressure tactics," she added.
Riyadh recently cut oil production, seemingly undercutting efforts by the US and Western allies to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.