The first anniversary of the barbaric murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi is approaching, but most world leaders apparently wish that we would forget about it and move on, none more so than the petulant Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’ de facto ruler. His fawning ministers are still in denial that he had anything to do with the journalist’s gruesome death in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October last year. However, I wonder what these craven individuals will make of a US documentary due to be broadcast today, Tuesday 1 October, in which Bin Salman says that he bears responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder “because it happened under my watch.”
A few Western governments and their intelligence agencies insisted at the time that the Crown Prince ordered the killing of Khashoggi. This fresh admission is hardly likely to cause global outrage, though, because the initial comments were made in the first few weeks after the murder last year as the Turkish government released the horrific details of the crime over a period of days and weeks. Time, as they say, is a great healer; it cuts memories short too.
After a “suitable” period when faux-outrage and dismay were expressed, it was business as usual for oil and arms deals between the Saudi and Western governments. True, Bin Salman has avoided visiting Europe or the United States in the interim period, but he has now told PBS journalist Martin Smith, “I get all the responsibility because it happened under my watch.”
Initially, the Saudi government denied having any hand in the journalist’s disappearance, let alone his death, even though he was filmed going into the consulate, and wasn’t seen in public again. However, when the Turkish government-produced irrefutable evidence, including audiotapes of his brutal murder and dismemberment, the narrative coming out of Riyadh changed and the murder was blamed on “rogue operatives”.
According to Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor, the then-deputy intelligence chief was blamed in part because he had ordered the repatriation of outspoken Washington-based Khashoggi who had become a thorn in the side of the Kingdom’s rulers. It is then thought that the lead negotiator ordered his execution after discussions about a “voluntary” return failed.
The prosecutor held Saud Al-Qahtani, a former top royal adviser, as the one who gave orders via a Skype call to the killers, according to Reuters; the agency also claimed that he briefed the execution squad on Khashoggi’s intended movements in Istanbul. In his PBS interview, Smith presses the Crown Prince on how the murder could happen without his knowledge.
Rather disingenuously, he retorts: “We have 20 million people. We have 3 million government employees.” Smith asked whether the killers would have had the authority to requisition government jets for the flights to and from Istanbul. “I have officials, ministers to follow things, and they’re responsible,” replies Bin Salman. “They have the authority to do that.”
Eleven Saudis are supposed to be standing trial for the murder, but since the hearings are shrouded in secrecy it is difficult to know if justice will be served, or even if anyone can believe a word that the Saudi government propaganda machine says. So far, Riyadh has managed to rebuff UN calls for the Crown Prince and other senior Saudi officials to be investigated, and the international organisation’s officials can expect little support from some of the key members of the UN Security Council.
In June, US President Donald Trump joked with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin about getting rid of journalists when the two leaders met at the G20 summit in Japan. Surrounded by journalists, Trump pointed to the reporters and said: “Get rid of them. Fake news is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia but we do.” Putin responded, uncharacteristically, in English: “We also have. It’s the same.”
The exchange was condemned by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), because at least 26 reporters have been murdered during Putin’s time as President. Many of them were investigative journalists who were looking at government corruption and abuses of power. Journalists in America have also come under attack at Trump rallies where he has referred to the media as the “enemy of the people.”
Last year, five Capital Gazette employees were killed in their newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland by a gunman, following which Reporters Without Borders added America to its list of the five deadliest countries for journalists to operate in. While the nature of Jamal Khashoggi’s death was extraordinary, sadly the murder of journalists is all too common.
According to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the killing of the Saudi journalist has posed “a serious threat to the international order. He went on to describe the crime as “arguably the most influential and controversial incident of the 21st century.” In an opinion piece for the Washington Post, where Khashoggi worked, he added that on this, the first anniversary of the killing, we still know “very little about what happened.”
What we do know is that questions still need to be answered and, as “business as usual” sweeps uncomfortable facts under the carpet, hypocrisy is still rife in international relations. But not everywhere.
Turkey’s Erdoğan has promised to continue investigations into the case. For him, there are three main questions which still remain unanswered: “Where are Khashoggi’s remains? Who signed the Saudi journalist’s death warrant? Who dispatched the 15 killers, including a forensic expert, aboard the two planes to Istanbul?”
Personally, I would add a fourth question: “Why is any country which claims to be civilised and lawful still doing business with Saudi Arabia?” If Mohammad Bin Salman was at all genuine in his concern to bring the killers to justice he could and would have done so by now. Are we seriously expected to believe that the Crown Prince is incapable of being able to tell us the identity of the killers and where Khashoggi’s remains are?
On Wednesday evening, Middle East Monitor will be holding a memorial event called “Remembering Jamal – One year on” at the British Library in London. MEMO hosted Jamal Khashoggi at an event in the British capital last year, just a couple of days before his murder. “Jamal Khashoggi may have been silenced physically,” says MEMO, “but his memory and his thoughts will have a lasting and enlightened impact on young people in the region and journalists across the world.” It’s a fitting tribute to a journalist whose brutal murder has become a cause célèbre for everyone who values freedom of speech and holding governments to account.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.