Interview with UN investigator: 'MbS should be probed in an international criminal investigation'

Interview with UN investigator: 'MbS should be probed in an international criminal investigation'
Interview: Mohammad bin Salman should be the object of an international criminal investigation, says UN Special Rapporteur, Agnès Callamard.
10 min read
19 Jun, 2019
'The crown prince himself should be investigated' says Callamard [AFP]
On 2 October 2018, journalist Jamal Khashoggi went into the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to obtain the papers required for his forthcoming marriage. His fiancée was waiting for him outside the building. 

He was never seen again.

After having furnished several contradictory versions, the Saudi authorities finally admitted that he had been killed on the consulate premises but claimed the operation had been carried out by a group of "uncontrolled elements" and that the highest authorities of the State were not involved. This explanation convinced no one.

Agnès Callamard has worked as Chief of staff for the Secretary-General of Amnesty International, executive director of Article 19, a human rights organisation, and is now Special UN Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

She has conducted an investigation into this murder, in collaboration with Duarte Nuno Vieira, forensic expert, Paul Johnston, criminal investigation expert and Helena Kennedy, human rights specialist.

Her conclusions were posted online on 19 June, and she will be presenting them on 26 June to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Orient XXI
's Alain Gresh interviews her to discuss her findings.

Orient XXI. - First of all, can you tell us whom you interviewed for your mission and where you went?

Agnès Callamard. - I began my investigation in January 2019. My first mission took me to Turkey. Next I went to Washington, Paris, London, Brussels, Berlin and Ottawa. Then back to Istanbul. I met with the representatives of all these governments.

In Turkey I met with those in charge of the investigation, in particular the public prosecutor and members of his staff. I met with Khashoggi's friends and colleagues, academic experts and representatives of governments linked with Saudi Arabia. All in all, I had over one hundred interviews.

Agnès Callamard, United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, discusses her report [Getty]

O.XXI. - Was it in Turkey that you gathered your most significant information?

A.C. - Yes, that was where the murder took place. I was able to listen to the recordings of the murder, or more precisely 45 minutes of recording. I have information to the effect that the Turkish authorities are in possession of several hours.

I must point out that this evidence is no doubt linked with Turkey's intelligence activities, though the Turkish authorities will not admit this. There is a difference between intelligence and actual evidence.

The experts I have interviewed regarding the legality of these sources have different opinions: Some consider them in violation of the Vienna Convention on consular relations, others think that this type of surveillance is so widespread that it can no longer be considered illegal, but I disagree.

We do not know how these recordings were made and if ever there is a trial, will they be admitted as evidence?

The notion that the Khashoggi murder is a domestic affair is absurd

O.XXI. - Were you able to obtain information from western nations and particularly the US?

A.C. - Yes; and I wish to thank them for that. They made it possible for me to authenticate allegations made by the Turks concerning the murder. On the other hand, I was unable to obtain any further information on the leak to the American media referring to a CIA report incriminating Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.

Only the journalist who published that piece of information knows its source and, of course, he cannot reveal it. I do mention that article in the report along with others which are meant to shed light on the Crown Prince's attitude towards Mr Khashoggi
prior to his murder.

But I cannot say that these published leaks constitute credible evidence. Thus I do not possess sufficient information to conclude that the US did or did not infringe upon their obligation to warn and protect Mr Khashoggi.

Read more: 'Will he fit in the trunk?': UN report reveals gruesome Khashoggi killing

O.XXI. - Saudi Arabia has refused to talk to you, claiming it is a domestic affair.

A.C. - I take exception with the notion that this is a domestic affair. First of all, the murder took place on foreign soil: It involved someone living in exile; Mr Khashoggi's murder was a crime perpetrated by the state, a violation of the rules of international law and relations.

Saudi Arabia has committed a violation of the principles of human rights and especially the ban against the arbitrary privation of life, a ban which is jus cogens, i.e. an imperative in international law.

Saudi Arabia has also violated the Vienna Convention on the use of consulates as well as the ban on the extraterritorial use of force as mentioned in the UN Charter (article 2-4). These obligations are termed erga omnes, meaning they concern the entire international community.

There is also a violation of the ban on torture and forced disappearance. This being the case, the notion that the Khashoggi murder is a domestic affair is absurd. Moreover, the murder was at the heart of the international political agenda for months and aroused a great deal of concern among the international community.

O.XXI. - Yet Saudi Arabia has announced the arrest of a number of individuals and they are already on trial, with a number of foreign ambassadors attending the proceedings.

A.C. - That trial is not being conducted in keeping with international norms. Only 11 people are on trial of the 20 originally arrested. Why were the 10 others released? Nobody knows. It seems the prosecutor has focused on those who were physically present at the time of the murder in the consulate.

The trial is held in camera despite the broad implications of the crime. The identities of the 11 have not been revealed, though I name them in my report, and five are facing a death sentence.

Saudi Arabia offered Turkey and the five permanent members of the Security Council to send observers. But these had to accept a principle of non-disclosure.

Now normally observers are meant to attest to the credibility of a trial verdict. But insofar as they are not allowed to speak out, their presence alone in no way confirms the legitimacy of these proceedings.

What is disturbing, if not shocking, is that the presence of these five ambassadors from the Security Council implicate the United Nations itself in what may well be a miscarriage of justice; I do not understand why the member states were not more concerned about their implication in a trial which offers all the hallmarks of unfairness.

O.XXI. - One of the chief suspects, Saud al-Qahtani, a close advisor of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, seems to have been spared by the investigation.

A.C. - Thus far, yes… However, my report addresses the responsibilities of the state rather than that of any individuals.

Saudia Arabia denies that this was a crime perpetrated by the state whereas most of my report shows that it was. But who is the state? On the basis of the information I obtained, I would suggest that at least two officials be the object of an in-depth investigation into their criminal responsibilities, Qahtani and Mohammad bin Salman, the Crown Prince.

I am not in a position to conclude that they are responsible for the murder but there exists enough evidence to open an in-depth investigation.

Qahtani has been personally implicated in several human rights violations: His name was associated with the kidnapping of Lebanese Premier Saad Hariri; with the detention of princes and businessmen at the Hotel Ritz Carlton; with the detention of women from civil society, including the torture inflicted on them.

The man in charge of the team sent to Istanbul, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb took his orders directly from Qahtani. The Saudi prosecutor himself, in a communiqué issued on 15 November 2018 admitted that Qahtani was directly implicated insofar as he had asked the team members to bring Khashoggi back to Arabia, claiming he was a threat to national security.

Agnès Callamard in Istanbul in January 2019
to investigate the killing [Getty]

There is no doubt in my mind that the murder was premeditated - even if it had originally been planned to kidnap him.

The very fact tha Qahtani was removed from his position as advisor to the royal court proves that the authorities hold him partly responsible.

The other person who should be investigated is the Crown Prince himself. My report emphasises the existence of circumstantial evidence: The operation which targeted Mr Khashoggi should be understood in the light of the organised and coordinated campaign against journalists, female activists, princes and businessmen.

At the very least, the crown prince endorsed behaviour which made it possible for these crimes to be repeated and to escalate. He took no steps to forestall or punish those responsible. The crown prince deliberately ran the risk that other crimes, such as Mr Khashoggi's murder, be committed, whether or not he gave direct orders to commit them.

O.XXI. - How do you explain that the body has never been found?

A.C. - The Saudis claim the corpse was handed over to one of their agents in Turkey who then vanished. This is a rather strange explanation when we know that the Turks have a very dense surveillance system in the streets of Istanbul and they told me they studied 3,000 hours of recording and followed one by one each member of the team, and saw no one "handing over" any package whatsoever. Perhaps the body was completely destroyed.

O.XXI. - Were you able to investigate other accusations brought against the Saudi authorities for attempted kidnappings of dissidents?

A.C. - Yes, in order to understand the context. We have proof of Riyadh's use of illegal equipment to spy on dissidents. This was true before the murder, as when one of Khashoggi's closest collaborators' telephone was hacked.

More disturbing were the threats received by a dissident who has found refuge in
Norway the CIA is said to be the source of this information and has apparently asked the Norwegian services to protect him. Which goes to show that Saudi Arabia has not changed its methods since the Khashoggi affair, while under international law it has an obligation to avoid the repetition of such crimes.

The kidnapping and detention of Saad Hariri in November 2017 should have warned the international community. There is no historical precedent of a country's prime minister being kidnapped by another country.

It was totally incredible but what was even more so was the absence of any international reaction, even if France finally freed him. It is as though this sort of behaviour is regarded as a Saudi idiosyncrasy and must simply be accepted as such.

O. XXI. - What are the recommendations contained in your report?

A.C. - Insofar as I do not have a mandate to conduct an international criminal investigation, I call on the Secretary-General to appoint a group of experts who could conduct such an investigation, put together dossiers on each of the individuals who might be indicted.

I also call on Saudi Arabia to suspend the ongoing trial proceedings and resume them only with the participation of the international community on the basis of in-depth investigations on al the suspects.

The Saudi government must accept responsibility for the execution, which it has still not done. Following Mr Khashoggi's murder, a number of governments have adopted targeted sanctions against certain Saudi officials. However, this murder was a crime perpetrated by the state.

These individual sanctions, aimed at 17 or more individuals, serve as a smokescreen to distract attention from the responsibility of Saudi Arabia.

That trial is not being conducted in keeping with international norms

Nor do the present sanctions answer the key questions concerning the chain of command and the responsibility of high-ranking officials with regard to the execution. Considering the credible evidence of the Crown Prince's responsibility for Mr Khashoggi's murder, I recommend that these sanctions should also include the Crown Prince himself and his personal property abroad, until proof is provided that he had no responsibility in Mr Khashoggi's execution.

More generally, this investigation has shown the vulnerability of journalists and dissidents, even when they have found refuge in exile. Consequently the authorities of host countries must think to revise their policies to guarantee the protection of these individuals.

The United Nations also has a role to play. Many initiatives have already been taken: I recommend the international organisation equip itself with the means to investigate targeted assassinations. I propose the creation of a standing investigative body to look into murders and kidnappings of the sort, similar to other existing bodies such as the one currently
investigating war crimes in Syria.

I also advise the entire international community to set up a fund designed to support projects and programmes for the protection of freedom of expression, freedom of the media and freedom of opinion in the Gulf region and to create a fund, named after Jamal Khashoggi to promote freedom of expression and democracy in the Middle East.

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.