Published in the Washington Post, May 24, 2020
On Thursday, Salah Khashoggi, the son of the slain Saudi journalist and Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, announced in a tweet that he had pardoned the killers of his father. Salah invoked Ramadan, the month of Mercy, in announcing it.
We are witnessing an unprecedented number of cases in which families are used as hostages to intimidate activists and writers abroad. The most recent example is the case of the former Saudi minister Saad Aljabri, who headed antiterrorism efforts for the Interior Ministry for decades. Aljabri's son, Khalid, said this week that his 21-year-old brother, Omar, and his 20-year-old sister, Sarah, were taken by the Saudi government last month and have not been heard from since. (The Saudi government has not confirmed the arrests, according to a New York Times report.) The uncle was also taken and held incommunicado apparently for no reason other than his being a brother of Saad Aljabri.
My own family also was intimidated; 17 members of my family are banned from travel. My uncle was arrested more than two years ago in a clear effort to pressure my jailed father and to pressure me into going back to Saudi Arabia. Many members of the family and friends of the Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz were also arrested to blackmail him into silence, Abdulaziz has said. It is in this context of fear and intimidation that Salah Khashoggi presented his statement of "pardon."
After Khashoggi's tweet, many pro-Saudi accounts in Saudi Arabia flooded Twitter with Islamic quotes and traditions on the virtues of mercy and forgiveness in Islam and Sharia, especially during the blessed last days of Ramadan. From the beginning, this "pardon" pushed for by the pro-government agenda never included prominent feminists such as Loujain al-Hathloul who Amnesty International has said has been tortured and electrocuted in jail; an economist such as Essam Al-Zamel, who has suffered abuse; or a political reformist such as Abdullah al-Hamid, who died in prison last month as a result of medical negligence.
Saudi Arabia's government follows Islamic law. Five years ago, the Saudi High Court, the kingdom's highest judicial body, decided that a murder that involved luring the victim to a place to kill him is a crime that is not pardonable, even from a family member. In 2014, Saudi Arabia's former justice minister, Muhammad al-Issa, announced that this kind of murder is not pardonable according to Saudi law. A year later, the Justice Ministry reiterated this decision.
The Saudi attorney general has proved to be quite the convenient attorney general for Saudi Arabia. Jamal Khashoggi's killing was a classic case of "gheelah" (premeditated murder that includes luring a victim to a place to kill them), and is thus is neither eligible for a pardon from the victim's family nor clemency from the king. To get around these hurdles, the Saudi attorney general in December classified the case of Khashoggi as a murder that could be punishable by "retribution." In that case, a family member can pardon the killers and receive blood money. Last December, the culprits who planned and orchestrated Khashoggi's October 2018 killing are now aiming to close his case file by pardoning the perpetrators.
Ramadan is a month of mercy. But the Saudi government has refused to give mercy to the intellectuals, economists, scholars and journalists, who suffer and languish in jail because of their peaceful activism and calls for reform. Alas, the Saudi government remembers the virtues of pardon only when it comes to those who carried out one of the most gruesome assassinations in the history of our region.
*Abdullah Alaoudh is a Saudi researcher at Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, and a visiting adjunct professor at George Washington University.