Abdullah Alaoudh is Director of Research for the Gulf Region at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN). Mike Eisner is the General Counsel and Chief Operating Officer of DAWN.
Published in Just Security, September 21, 2020
The recent Saudi verdict sentencing five people to 20 years in jail and two others to 10 and 7 years for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi represents the latest chapter in the spurious Saudi attempt to turn the page on the gruesome act that has so damaged the country's – and its ambitious Crown Prince's – global standing. The Saudis declared the verdict a "final" ruling, but accountability for Khashoggi's murder is anything but final. Civil society organizations, including our Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), the organization Khashoggi founded shortly before his death and which will launch this month, are just getting started on campaigns to hold his murderers accountable.
We are not alone either. The U.S. Congress, plaintiffs in U.S. federal courts, and various private-sector businesses have joined the struggle seeking justice for Khashoggi. These efforts will have a profound impact, not only in challenging the Saudi government's hoped-for impunity for this heinous crime and its ongoing abuses, but on deterring other governments who think they too can get away with executing exiled critics abroad.
The Saudi trial was a farce from the start, excluding the chief architects of the murder, Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman, who, according to the CIA, ordered Khashoggi's murder, and Saoud Al-Qahtani, one of MBS' top advisers at the time, who oversaw the operation remotely. The Saudi court had earlier dismissed charges against Qahtani and the other senior implicated official, former deputy intelligence chief and Crown Prince adviser Ahmed al-Asiri.
Not content with absolving the main culprits, the court also closed the trial to international monitors, conducting all of its proceedings in secret. No information is publicly available about what transpired during the trial, what evidence the prosecutors presented, or whether the defendants or any witnesses testified at all. After almost one year and nine secret hearings, the Saudi court convicted eight low-level officials, who have kept their silence concerning the respective roles of their superiors, either in anticipation of future pardons and lavish payments, or simply out of sheer terror.
Despite going through the motions of a trial and enlisting the help of some of the most expensive public relations firms in the world, the Saudis didn't necessarily believe they would fool the world into thinking that eight low-level officials flew in and out of Istanbul, bone-saw in luggage, on private Saudi jets on Oct. 2, 2018, carrying out the murder of the high-profile dissident Khashoggi without the support and direction of higher ups in the Saudi government. Sophisticated Saudis, one would think, had to understand that no serious person, President Donald Trump notwithstanding, would trust the verdict of the secret Saudi trial over the CIA phone intercepts implicating MBS and its conclusions concerning his and Qahtani's responsibility for the Khashoggi murder.
Back to Business as Usual?
Perhaps more realistically, the Saudis hope that the sham verdict will provide a token measure of justice, however counterfeit, that will ease the concerns of its business partners, countries, and private-sector companies that might have qualms about the murder. Indeed, most countries and businesses have already returned to business as usual with the No. 1 exporter of oil and purchaser of weapons in the world.
But notable and stubborn parties have refused to accept the Saudi whitewash. Many Western countries have maintained travel bans and sanctions on individuals allegedly involved in the murder. A smaller but significant subset of Western countries — most notably, Germany, Norway, and Sweden — have refused to lift suspensions of arms exports imposed in the wake of the murder.
Disregarding the Trump administration's embrace of Crown Prince MBS, the U.S. Congress has weighed into the controversy, holding hearings on the murder, passing resolutions implicating the Crown Prince, and passing legislation to try to force the administration to declassify the findings of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) concerning the leading role played by the Crown Prince in Khashoggi's murder. Thus far, the Trump administration has been successful in fending off Congress and protecting the Crown Prince from any serious repercussions within the United States. That could well change if Joe Biden becomes president.
Meanwhile, human rights and civil rights organizations, think tanks, and free-press advocacy organizations have led the charge in demanding accountability for Khashoggi's murderers, mobilizing immediately after his disappearance. Since that time, they have remained focused, steady, and relentless in seeking justice, most recently by calling for a boycott of the civil society group meetings organized by the Saudi government in the lead-up to the Group of 20 summit scheduled for November 21-22, 2020 in Riyadh. In March 2020, Amnesty International announced that it would join the boycott, along with 220 other civil society organizations.
Pressing the Case in Other Courts
U.S. courts have recently been drawn into the Khashoggi murder as well. On Aug. 6 this year, Saad al-Jabri, a former top Saudi intelligence officer living in Toronto, filed suit in U.S. District Court in Washington, DC, alleging that the Saudis sent a hit team to kill him just 13 days after the murder of Khashoggi. On Aug. 20, the Open Society Justice Initiative sued under the Freedom of Information Act seeking the release of the same DNI report that Congress has sought to declassify. The Saudis can expect other suits in U.S. federal court for the murder of our first executive director that will not defer to Saudi "final" rulings.
Saudi Arabia isn't the only country that has murdered dissidents living in exile. Both Iran and Russia have engaged in a pattern of extrajudicial killings of its political dissidents living abroad. Other despotic regimes that surveil and threaten their nationals abroad, including China, might well be observing the international reaction to the Khashoggi murder and the gravity of consequences borne by the murderers. Indeed, we can expect to see more such attempts to silence activists abroad, as the number of political exiles demanding change for their home countries increases with expanding authoritarian repression.
To safeguard dissidents living in exile, who often are the only independent voices remaining from countries that have quashed all domestic dissent, we must keep up the drumbeat of demands for accountability for Khashoggi's murderers. The world must demonstrate to Crown Prince MBS, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, and other would-be princely assassins that there is a heavy and unacceptable price to pay for murdering their citizens abroad.