Interview with UN investigator: Justice for Jamal Khashoggi

Interview with UN investigator: Justice for Jamal Khashoggi
Interview: Justice for Jamal will take time. For now, we must block every effort made to restore the legitimacy of the Saudi state, says UN Special Rapporteur, Agnès Callamard.
6 min read
30 Sep, 2019
Nine of the 15-member hit team sent to Istanbul have been indicted [Getty]
Just one year ago, on 2 October 2018, the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered on the premises of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, in particularly horrible circumstances.

Last June, Agnès Callamard, special rapporteur for the United Nations on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, presented her report on this crime before the UN Council on Human Rights.

Three months later, we take stock of the situation with her.

Alain Gresh. - Have you got any new information on that murder since your report was published ?

Agnès Callamard. - I have received information from various quarters but for the moment none of it seems credible, there has been nothing I can authenticate.

In a recent interview on the PBS network in the US, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman admitted that the murder took place 
"under my watch.". Meaning, at least indirectly, that the crime was a state crime insofar as he is a statesman and implying that he is practically the head of state.

But he did not acknowledge his personal, individual responsibility for the murder, quite the contrary; he distanced himself from it by explaining that there are millions of civil servants at work, and ministers who handle the dossiers and that he cannot keep tabs on every one of their actions.

He refuses to acknowledge his own criminal liability, if only for having failed to take steps to prevent such a murder.

A.G. - Do you have any information about the ongoing trial in Saudi Arabia against some of the accused?

A.C. - As you know, 11 people have been indicted, including nine of the 15 who were identified as members of the hit team sent to Istanbul. Why only these and not the others? Nobody knows.

Since my report was published, there has been at least one trial session, but it was a closed session, and those who were present, including a representative of the French government, have provided no information on the proceedings.

In a recent interview on the PBS network in the US, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman admitted that the murder took place 'under my watch'.

Whatever the case, it is impossible to consider it a fair trial, even if it leads to convictions. First of all, because even though General Ahmad al-Assiri is among the defendants, the man mainly responsible for the operation, Saud al-Qahtani, was not indicted. He is close to MbS and many witnesses named him in connection with the kidnapping of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

He is also a prime suspect in the torturing of women's rights activists, and was even named by the Saudi prosecutor as one of the people behind the murder and who urged the team to bring Khashoggi in because he was a threat to national security. There are rumours to the effect that he himself has been killed but I have not been able to check them out.

A.G. - What were the reactions to your published report?

A.C. - The reactions among the members of the Council on Human Rights and in the media have by and large been positive. Some governments have made some very strong statements, such as those of Canada and Australia. France, on the other hand, is one of the countries in favour of a return to "business as usual".

No concrete action was taken after that session of the Council. On the contrary, the G20 summit in Osaka, held just a few weeks after my report, witnessed the lamentable spectacle of the President of the United States embracing MbS.

There was also a photo taken at the end of the conference with Donald Trump and MbS shaking hands surrounded by other chiefs of state waving to the camera.

This shows a lack of respect for all the Saudi Arabians suffering from the repression in their country, for the very principles which the G20 claims to represent and for my own work. No chief of state has distanced himself from that manipulation orchestrated by the US president and the Saudi prince.

A.G. - The next meeting of the G20 is meant to take place in Riyadh in 2020, is it not?

A.C. - That Osaka summit was problematic but next year's is likely to be disastrous for the values that we defend.

There are two possible options: Either some government volunteers to host the summit instead of Saudi Arabia, or else the participation of the different countries is subject to certain very clear conditions. These should include the release of the activist women in prison and all those who are political prisoners. Their participation should also be conditional upon whoever ordered the Khasshoggi murder being held to account.

It is also essential for the chiefs of state to demand that freedom of the press be on the summit agenda, that they organise a press conference on that issue, and not tolerate a manipulation of the G20 for motives which run counter to the founding values of several member states.

A.G. - Getting back to the reactions to your report, you met with several members of the US Congress?

A.C. - Yes, I had meetings with about a dozen of them and they were really up in arms. The House of Representatives passed a motion in July by an overwhelming majority (405 to 7), a text presented by Congressman Tom Malinowski demanding that the Director of the United States Intelligence Community* identify those responsible for the murder and see that sanctions are imposed on them.

If this motion were to be approved by the Senate, it would have serious consequences. It would, for example, lead to sanctions against Crown Prince MbS who could no longer obtain a visa for the US. I hope these very firm stands will encourage other members of parliament around the world to realise they have a role to play in this matter, independently of the positions of the executive.

A.G. - Can the UN act on the basis of your report?

A.C. - They could do, but will they? I asked the Secretary-General to set up a committee to determine the individual responsibilities for the murder, but he refused. He claimed not to have the power to do so and that Turkey should submit an official request, which it still has not done.

More recently he has hinted that in order to do this, he would need a Security Council vote, whereas UN procedural experts think the opposite is true. I then suggested that the institutional loophole brought to light by the Khashoggi affair should be corrected by the creation of an international investigative body which could mandate itself, without any political decision, and thus facilitate the task of the Secretary-General. Indeed it is not a simple matter to defy the USA or Saudi Arabia.

Read more: A year after Khashoggi: Clarity but no accountability

What he could do is to describe how future progress could be made in such a way as to avoid politicising the decision-making process. The only way to achieve this would be to set up a new body for independent investigation. He could ask the Council on Human Rights or even the General Assembly to set up such a body.

Getting justice for Jamal is going to take time. In the meantime, we must block every effort made to restore the legitimacy of the Saudi state, whose oppressive nature is now firmly established, and adopt the interim measures necessary to better uphold the principles defended by the United Nations.


*This agency watches over the activities of the 17 US intelligence agencies.

This article was originally published by our partners at Orient XXI

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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.