The US government has cited the example of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to defend the immunity provided to Saudia Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The US intelligence community found that Mohammad bin Salman, often called MBS, ordered the killing of Khashoggi in 2018. However, he not been sanctioned and the US government continues to engage with him and the ruling Saudi family.
The Joe Biden administration on Thursday submitted in response to a lawsuit filed by Khashoggi's fiance Hatice Cengiz that MBS has immunity in the United States as he is a head of a government. MBS was recently appointed the Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia. While the decision attracted critcism from Cengiz and human rights advocates, the Biden administration defended the move and cited precedents, involving Modi.
What did US government say?
Modi was sanctioned by the United States during 2005-14 over his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat Riots. The ban wan on his entry into the United States was lifted in 2014 when he became the Prime Minister of India. US Department of State Principal Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel cited Modi and others to defend the immunity to MBS.
"It is a longstanding and consistent line of effort. It has been applied to a number of heads of state previously. 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," said Patel.
When asked that none of these persons, including Modi, had murdered a journalist who happened to be US permanent resident, Patel said the US government's position on MBS was not a stand on the merits of the case but a matter of law of the land.
"This is not a reflection of the merits of the case or a reflection of our views on Mr. Khashoggi’s brutal murder. This is a reflection of a legal designation that flows from the crown prince’s role as the head of government," said Patel.
The US government's citation of Modi to defend MBS has attracted some criticism from commentators, but there has been no official word from New Delhi on this so far.
Why was PM Modi banned from US?
The then-George W Bush administration banned Modi from entering the United States under a provision that denies visa to any foreign official who "directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religions freedom", according to The Times of India.
The US government not only denied Modi a diplomatic visa but also cancelled his tourist and business visa.
The ToI report from 2005 further notes, "US officials argued that the State Department's stand on Gujarat Riots were based largely on the reports of India's National Human Rights Commission findings and other independent Indian sources. Its conclusions on Gujarat riots and the role of the then BJP government, state police, and other official organs as well as Chief Minister Narendra Modi, are all contained in detail in the US State Department' annual reports on human rights and religious freedom."
However, the ban ended when Modi became Prime Minister of India in 2014. Within hours of his victory, the then-US President Barack Obama talked to Modi over phone and invited him to the United States.
MBS's role in Jamal Khashoggi's killing
Jamal Khashoggi was a US-based journalist and a columnist for The Washington Post. He walked into the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, Turkey. That was his last sighting. It's believed he was murdered inside the embassy.
"Saudi officials said the journalist was killed in a "rogue operation" by a team of agents sent to persuade him to return to the kingdom, while Turkish officials said the agents acted on orders from the highest levels of the Saudi government," reported the BBC.
The US government, however, concluded that Saudi Crown Prince MBS was behind the killing.
"We assess that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi," reported a declassified US intelligence community's report in February 2021.
The report ruled out that it could have been a "rogue" operation.
"We base this assessment on the Crown Prince's control of decisionmaking in the Kingdom, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Muhammad bin Salman's protective detail in the operation...Since 2017, the Crown Prince has had absolute control of the Kingdom's security and intelligence organizations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince's authorization," said the report.