Jamal Khashoggi's legacy: A vision worth defending

Jamal Khashoggi's legacy: A vision worth defending
Comment: Jamal Khashoggi had a vision of freedom and democracy in the Arab region. The need to fight for it is now greater than ever, writes Marc Owen Jones.
5 min read
01 Oct, 2020
This Friday marks two years since Jamal Khashoggi's murder [TNA illustration/Getty]

It's been exactly two years since journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, likely on the orders of Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).

Two years later and Khashoggi's remains have still not been found. He has been denied the right to a dignified burial, and his killers likely escaped justice in a Saudi kangaroo court.

Yet while many western politicians and businesses want to avoid bringing Khashoggi's killers to justice in order to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia, the NGO that Khashoggi created before his death - Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), has been relaunched this week to continue the fight for justice.

Where institutions and governments have failed, good people will try to do what their governments refuse; to hold Khashoggi's killers accountable. 

No body and no justice 

On 2 October 2018, Khashoggi was dismembered by the 'Tiger Squad' - a 15 man team of assassins sent from Riyadh. Since that time, the Saudi authorities have done little, bar a show trial for Khashoggi's killers to give the illusion of justice.

Of those 15, only 11 were put on trial. The trial itself failed to meet the most basic international standards of fairness. Only eight of those tried were convicted with sentences ranging from seven to 20 years. What's more, it was a closed proceeding, witnessed only by members of the security council who agreed to sign non-disclosure agreements, making them, according to The UN special rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Agnes Callamard, complicit in a theatrical "mockery of justice".

As international outrage waned following Khashoggi's killing, so too did any attempts to obtain justice

The fact that we do not know what happened to Khashoggi's body is perhaps one of the single largest mysteries of any modern high profile murder, and the most powerful testament to his killers' impunity. How is it possible that a regime that has shown demonstrable willingness to torture human rights activists, is apparently unable to ascertain the location of Khashoggi's body from any of the people in the 15-man death squad?

Instead we have been left floundering between multiple theories: Was he dissolved in acid? Or was he burned in an oven at the Saudi Consul's house in Istanbul? What's more, if this information was revealed at the trial, why has it not been made public?

International failures and friends in high places 

While initially encouraging, attempts to mobilise the international community to get justice for Khashoggi have ended in apathy and indifference. Agnes Callamard wrote a detailed report in 2019 on the killing of Jamal. Her recommendations were clear, the primary one being that the "the UN Secretary-General open a criminal investigation into the murder, or set up a tribunal to prosecute the culprits." Callamard's report also urged companies to boycott those believed to be connected with the killing. 

Yet as international outrage waned following Khashoggi's killing, so too did any attempts to obtain justice. The UN Secretary-General did not open a criminal investigation. Those higher up the accountability chain, such as the infamous Saud al-Qahtani, were let off the hook. This cowardice allowed Saudi Arabia to replace any chance of justice with the illusion of justice in the Saudi legal system.

Ironically, those accused of murdering Khashoggi were spared the death penalty. Executions - an unacceptable punishment for anyone - are common in Saudi Arabia, and this very public show of mercy was used to burnish Saudi's human rights credentials while sparing those they never wanted to convict in the first place. 

Indeed, it is a bitter irony that the Saudi regime found it fitting to extrajudicially murder an innocent journalist while sparing the lives of those complicit in a brutal killing. 

Yet this lack of accountability has been enabled by a US administration that cares little about human rights. The US president, Donald Trump, even boasted that he protected MBS from US Congress in the wake of the Khashoggi killing, stating "I saved his ass... I was able to get Congress to leave him alone. I was able to get them to stop."  

For Trump, it was not worth sacrificing lucrative weapons contracts over justice for Khashoggi, and he later vetoed a congressional attempt to block an $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia in the wake of the murder and mounting Yemen civilian casualties. All the while, pro-Saudi propagandists, and the likes of Jared Kushner, have attempted to legitimise Khashoggi's killing by smearing him as a terrorist. 

Jamal's legacy 

Yet Khashoggi's legacy is set to haunt MBS and other authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Not only did his brutal murder irreparably damage MBS's attempts to paint himself as a reformer, but it engendered a sense of injustice so profound among journalists, activists, and policy makers - especially those who knew him - that his killing has been institutionalised in the relaunch of his own vision, with the organisation Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN). 

Where governments have failed to obtain justice for Khashoggi, civil society has stepped up

DAWN, which was originally set up by Khashoggi before he was murdered, relaunched on 29 September, and aims to promote "democracy, the rule of law, and human rights for all of the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa".

Led by former Middle East Director of Human Rights Watch, Sarah Leah Whitson, DAWN, along with numerous experts (including myself), seeks to document human rights abuses and to expose the entire chain of accountability, from the judges to the prison guards.

DAWN also plans to create the "Khashoggi Index", which will monitor and track the roles of foreign governments in bolstering or hindering democracy, justice and human rights in the Middle East. 

Where governments have failed to obtain justice for Khashoggi, civil society has stepped up. Moreover, it is fitting that DAWN immortalises Khashoggi's pursuit for democracy in the Arab World. And while his body may never be found, his spirit will live on, and Khashoggi will continue to be a thorn in the side of dictators in the MENA.

Marc Owen Jones is an assistant professor in Middle East studies and digital humanities at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Doha, and an honorary research fellow at Exeter University.

Follow him on Twitter: @marcowenjones

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.

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