Don't let Saudi Arabia's crown prince off the hook on Khashoggi

Don't let Saudi Arabia's crown prince off the hook on Khashoggi
Comment: A combination of sanctions and international pressure should be leveraged against Mohammed bin Salman's leadership, writes Human Rights Watch's Adam Coogle.
4 min read
02 Oct, 2019
11 people have been put on trial, but proceedings remain shrouded in secrecy [AFP]
In the year since the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by a crew of Saudi agents, authorities in the kingdom have done everything they could to prevent meaningful accountability, much less justice, for this crime.

The government has put 11 people on trial for the killing, but the ongoing proceedings remain shrouded in secrecy. The government refused outright to cooperate with an investigation by Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur for extrajudicial killings.

In addition, Saudi authorities have not stopped their campaign of repression against dissidents and activists, of which Khashoggi was a victim. Instead, they are doubling down on their repression and continue to silence the independent Saudi voices that Khashoggi sought to defend.

But the issue has not gone away, as Saudi officials apparently hoped it would.

In a TV interview on 29 September, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman 
said he did not order Khashoggi's murder but took "full responsibility as a leader in Saudi Arabia," conceding that the killers were government agents.

But for there to be true accountability, the crown prince and his government need to take a series of steps, both to provide some measure of justice for the crime, and to demonstrate an intention to rectify their reckless behaviour.

First, the Saudi government should provide complete transparency both about the ongoing trial, and reveal everything it knows about the planning, execution, and aftermath of Khashoggi's murder.

The Saudi government should apologise publicly for murdering a US resident on Turkish soil, and provide a public admission of wrongdoing. It should also assure the international community that it will end its attacks on government critics. 

As a first and urgent step, it needs to free all those the government has unjustly detained after Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince in July 2017 - the dissidents, clerics, journalists, intellectuals, businesspeople, royal family members, and women's rights activists who have been silenced and tossed into prison.

Saudi authorities have not stopped their campaign of repression against dissidents and activists

Many have had unfair trials, and some have alleged that authorities tortured them.

Then, the government should undertake a host of reforms to ensure that Saudis can speak freely. It should revamp the security services used to target dissidents, and establish laws that enshrine critics' rights, a penal code that articulates elements of real crimes, and an independent judiciary.

Callamard noted in her report in June that there is evidence that responsibility for Khashoggi's murder extends beyond the 11 people on trial. She said there is credible evidence warranting a United Nations criminal investigation of high-level Saudi officials, including Mohammed bin Salman, for their role in the murder. While she did not find definitive evidence linking the crown prince to the murder, she also did not rule out his involvement.

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She said  that he "had played an essential role in a campaign of repressing dissidents" and that experts found it "inconceivable" that such a large-scale operation could be carried out without the crown prince being aware that a "mission of a criminal nature, directed at Mr Khashoggi, was being launched".

Under international law, a state is responsible for the unlawful acts of its agents acting in their official capacity - in this case the deliberate, premeditated and extrajudicial execution of a government critic. For international crimes such as torture, commanders up to the highest level can be held liable for crimes committed by their subordinates under the principle of command responsibility.

Other countries should support targeted sanctions on members of the Saudi leadership responsible for ongoing human rights violations

The Saudi government should make clear to the world that it would be willing to cooperate with a UN investigation, including allowing access to evidence and suspects implicated in the crime in Saudi Arabia.

Human Rights Watch has previously called for individual sanctions against Mohammed bin Salman over the Saudi-led coalition's indiscriminate bombing and unlawful blockading of essential goods to Yemen's civilian population.

His government's responsibility for continued major human rights violations in Yemen only strengthens the case for sanctions against top Saudi leaders, as long as the serious abuses continue.

In response to this and other egregious Saudi abuses, other countries should support targeted sanctions on members of the Saudi leadership responsible for ongoing human rights violations, until these abuses come to an end.

Read more: Interview with UN investigator: Justice for Jamal Khashoggi

Other countries should also halt sales of advanced surveillance equipment to Saudi Arabia until it stops targeting independent dissidents and activists for repression and releases those convicted in unfair trials. 

Companies doing business in Saudi Arabia should adhere to international human rights standards and create monitoring systems to ensure that their business activities do not harm human rights. 

The Saudi crown prince has done very little to accept accountability for Jamal Khashoggi's killing. Now he needs to come clean about what actually happened, and guarantee that it can never happen again.

Adam Coogle is the senior researcher for Saudi Arabia at Human Rights Watch.

Follow him on Twitter: @cooglea

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.