On Oct. 2, U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi went into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, and was never seen alive again, assassinated by a team most likely sent by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).
The accusations were initially met by a flurry of denials and rumors that feel quite familiar. It was “rogue elements” in the Saudi security service was one story; it was all a set-up by the regime’s critics was another; it was a rendition gone wrong. The eventual official reply was that the assassination team (complete with bone saw, forensic expert, and body double) engaged in a fistfight where Khashoggi was tragically and accidentally killed — “These things happen,” declared the Saudi foreign minister to an American news channel. The torrent of lies and obfuscation is how Russia responded when their forces in eastern Ukraine shot down Malaysian Air flight 17 in July 2014. As facts emerge, all pointing in the same direction, they are each met with a dozen new lies.
The horror of what transpired in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has shocked the dissident and human rights community. We recently saw Khashoggi in Oslo, Norway, during the annual Oslo Freedom Forum event where numerous Arab activists came together to discuss tyranny and express their frustration with the supposedly reform-minded crown prince. Khashoggi was “deeply touched” by his days in Oslo, where he was free to exchange ideas with likeminded individuals. He and his fellow participants discussed their work and debated the dangers of traveling to Turkey. Khashoggi was looking forward to attending the Oslo Freedom Forum event in New York last month but had to cancel at the last minute in order to travel to Istanbul.
Khashoggi knew his consulate visit would not be a routine errand. One of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent journalists, he had fallen out of favor with the Saudi government after openly criticizing the policies of MBS. He was cautious and, prior to entering the consulate, gave his two mobile phones to his fiancée along with instructions to call a member of Turkey’s governing party if he did not re-emerge. She waited for hours before calling police.
Putting aside whether the original intent was to kidnap or kill Khashoggi, the Saudi regime appears to have followed in the bloody footsteps of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un by crossing national borders to enact extreme violence. Journalists and activists working inside authoritarian regimes know that their lives are under threat from the moment they choose to speak out, and often take intricate measures to protect themselves.
They use secure communications apps like Signal and Wickr. They book indirect flights on multiple tickets so that they are harder to track while traveling. They use aliases and burner phones. But these are extra precautions. No one -- certainly not Khashoggi, a moderate who called himself a “loyal critic” -- expects to fall victim to such a horrific end while living near Washington and visiting his fiancée in a NATO member nation prior to their wedding.
Official responses to Khashoggi’s death have not been driven by a concern for human rights or for Khashoggi, but for political advantage. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued impassioned statements emphasizing the alarming nature of Khashoggi’s case. “God willing, we will not be faced with an undesirable situation,” Erdogan said, calling Khashoggi “a journalist and a friend.”
Erdogan has no concern for human rights, of course. His regime has jailed more journalists than any country in the world and scores of them remain in prison in Turkey. Since 2016, Turkey’s intelligence agency has abducted at least 80 people in operations in 18 countries. Our organization, the Human Rights Foundation, has advocated on behalf of 31 individuals that Turkey targeted for arrest and deportation in Moldova, Kosovo, Mongolia and Turkmenistan. Such towering hypocrisy makes it difficult to accept Turkish statements about Khashoggi unless they are accompanied by verifiable facts.
Meanwhile, President Trump, having prioritized strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia since coming into office, suggested that he would rather ignore a blatant violation of international law than jeopardize an arms sale. It was he, not the Saudis themselves, who first circulated the “rogue killers” theory in the media. And last week in Riyadh, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sounded ready to accept the results of a Saudi investigation, a laughable charade. Despite Trump’s stance, Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., have put forward a bipartisan proposal to implement the Global Magnitsky Act for Khashoggi's killing, calling for possible sanctions once the truth about his fate is uncovered.
Trump initially dismissed the idea of sanctioning Saudi Arabia, saying, “I don't like stopping massive amounts of money that's being poured into our country. I know they’re talking about different kinds of sanctions, but [Saudi Arabia is] spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs ... for this country.” Khashoggi, after all, was only a “resident” of the U.S., not a “citizen,” Trump explained. Trump has since been hemming and hawing as to whether or not there will be consequences.
This transactional approach is the worst possible outcome for those who care about human rights. It says that if you pour money into our economy — or possibly into more private investments — you can get away with anything. This has been a favored tactic of the Chinese dictatorship for decades and is how the Putin regime has infiltrated Western capitals. It must not become a standard for how Western democracies interact with authoritarian regimes. Not only is it immoral, it leads to further acts of violence.
Exiled activists and critics have been jolted into awareness that borders cannot protect them. If democratic nations fail to sanction the behavior of the Saudi regime, they are giving dictators like MBS a free pass to kill anyone who dares to speak against them, and they are chilling the speech and action of tens of thousands of human rights defenders. Leaders of the free world should call for the release of all political prisoners and the removal of MBS as Saudi crown prince, as he has proven he has no interest in democratic reform. The likelihood that MBS will be removed as crown prince, once considered inconceivable, is moderately high. A new Saudi crown prince could end the disastrous war in Yemen, accelerate the rights of women by immediately ending male guardianship, and set up a timetable for the transition to a constitutional monarchy from an absolutist despotism.
Jamal Khashoggi was not an abstract symbol; he was a human being. He was a man who just missed his own wedding. He gave up everything so that he could write freely, because — as he often proclaimed — he loved Saudi Arabia. He felt that he was serving his country even in exile by exercising his independent voice and encouraging MBS to reform the Saudi system in which Khashoggi still believed. And he was killed for it. We cannot lose sight of Khashoggi’s humanity amid the coverups and political deal-making that surrounds his murder. His legacy is best served by actively and vociferously defending individual rights — a concept he worked tirelessly to promote, and ultimately died for.