The year 2018 was not a good one for journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that that year, at least 34 journalists were killed in reprisal for their work worldwide, nearly double the number killed in 2017. Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi-born US resident, was one of them — but his murder would ignite an international firestorm exposing horrific brutality, torture, and corruption among some of the world’s most powerful leaders.
For decades, he was close to the Saudi royal family and even served as an adviser to the government. He was a prominent journalist, covering some of the biggest international stories for various Saudi news agencies. However, his criticism of the royal family led to his falling out of favor with them, and when he criticized US President Trump, he was banned from writing.
So, in 2017, he moved to the US and became a legal resident. While here, he wrote an opinion column for the Washington Post. In it, he was critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), and his very first column expressed his fear of being arrested in a crackdown on dissenters.
On Oct. 2, 2018, Khashoggi returned to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, to obtain some papers so he could marry his fiancee. He had been to the consulate before, where he said he had been treated warmly, and he did not think that anything bad could happen to him on Turkish soil.
Surveillance video shows a team of men arrived at the consulate around 12:30 p.m. Khashoggi arrived about 45 minutes later, leaving cell phones with his fiancee with instructions to call for help if he did not return.
His fiancee waited for him for 10 hours, but he never returned.
Video footage leaked in December 2018 shows the Saudi men carrying bags out of the consulate and loading them into a van, then the van leaving for the consul’s residence.
Four days later, Turkish officials admitted that Khashoggi had been killed in the consulate; a US official stated that his body had been dismembered and flown out of the country — probably in those bags. Yet for three weeks, Saudi Arabian officials continued to deny that Khashoggi was dead.
During that time, the chair and ranking member of the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee sent a letter to then-Pres. Trump invoking the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, giving him 120 days to investigate Khashoggi’s death and, if it was a human rights violation, to impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia.
Back at the consulate, Turkish investigators were not allowed to search the building until Oct. 15, after a cleaning crew was filmed entering. Inside, investigators found that walls and other surfaces had been freshly repainted.
On Oct. 19, Saudi Arabia finally admitted that Khashoggi was dead, but now claimed it was the result of a “fistfight.” They detained 18 people in connection to the crime, but didn’t release their names or allow Turkey to extradite them. Most world leaders were not satisfied with this new story, and soon afterwards Germany, Finland, and Denmark cancelled all arms deals with Saudi Arabia.
The US, however, took the opposite stance. On Oct. 16, then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Riyadh to discuss the Khashoggi murder with King Salman and the Crown Prince. Pompeo seemed to take the Saudis’ denials at face value and stressed what a “great ally” they are in the fight against Iran. Coincidentally, Saudi Arabia made a $100 million payment to the US that very day.
Meanwhile, in the face of global outrage and disbelief, the Saudis changed their story yet again. This time they admitted that it was Saudis who killed him, but they were a “rogue operation.” The CIA, along with other intelligence agencies, disagreed, stating that the Saudi Crown Prince was responsible for the killing.
Between Halloween and the Day of the Dead, Turkish prosecutors leaked more horrific details of Khashoggi’s murder: that he had been strangled, then dismembered, then his remains dissolved in acid. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the order to kill Khashoggi came from the “highest levels” of the Saudi government.
On Nov. 11, Turkey let representatives from several countries, including the US, listen to tapes obtained from the consulate (then-US National Security Adviser John Bolton refused to listen to them). The tapes are difficult to listen to — they record the last minutes of Khashoggi’s life, where he is interrogated, tortured, and murdered. Listeners can hear the sounds of cutting and sawing as his body is being dismembered. There could be no doubt, now, that the murder was premeditated.
Saudi Arabia continued to assert the murderers were “rogue” intelligence agents who “accidentally” killed Khashoggi while attempting to bring him back to Saudi Arabia.
Almost a year later, they say they investigated 31 people in connection with the murder, and arrested 21 of them — as well as firing five high-level government officials. In January 2019, Saudi Arabia put 11 people on trial for Khashoggi’s murder, seeking the death penalty for five of them.
The trial, which was conducted behind closed doors, found eight of the defendants guilty and sentenced three of them to death. At a news conference after the trial, the Saudi public prosecutor stated that their investigations concluded that the murder was not premeditated.
A UN investigator, however, dismisses that claim as “utterly ridiculous,” and Human Rights Watch asserts the trial did not meet international standards of accountability.
The UN conducted its own investigation, which concluded that Khashoggi’s murder was in fact an extra-judicial killing (i.e., an assassination) for which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible. It showed that he was lured to the Turkish consulate by senior Saudi officials — including the ambassador to the US, who is the Crown Prince’s brother. There, the report concludes, he was met with 15 members of a Saudi “special operations team,” including a doctor who brought with him a bone saw. He was injected with drugs, beaten, strangled to death, and dismembered.
Khashoggi’s remains were later found buried in the garden of the Saudi consul general’s home in Istanbul, about 1,600 feet away from the consulate. His face had been disfigured, and his fingers — which had typed stories critical of the Saudi government — had been cut off.
The UN investigation also concluded that there was “credible evidence, warranting further investigation of high-level Saudi officials’ individual liability, including the crown prince’s.” It also recommends that the Crown Prince should be “subject to the targeted sanctions already imposed by some UN member states, including the US, against other named individuals allegedly involved in the killing.”
But during his presidency, then-Pres. Trump acted extremely conciliatory towards the Saudis, either by simply accepting their version of events or by making vague threats of consequences “if” the allegations (of the international intelligence community) were true. Trump was uncharacteristically honest about why: he stated time and time again he did not want to halt the very lucrative arms deals the US has with Saudi Arabia, including the largest arms deal in US history. Congress, however, continued to push for an independent investigation and possible sanctions.
When Joe Biden took office in January 2021, the US’ formerly lenient stance towards Saudi Arabia appeared to be ending. Even before he was elected, Biden had vowed that “Mr. Khashoggi’s death would not be in vain, and that we owe it to his memory to fight for a more just and free world.”
Soon after Biden took office, his administration released an unclassified intelligence report — which had previously been blocked by Trump — to Congress, which showed that the Crown Prince was, in fact, responsible for Khashoggi’s killing.
On Feb. 26, 2021, the US Dept. of State issued a press release entitled “Accountability for the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” stating that the Biden-Harris administration was “announcing additional measures to reinforce the world’s condemnation of that crime.” It did so by instituting the Khashoggi Ban, which imposes visa restrictions on individuals who, “acting on behalf of a foreign government, are believed to have been directly engaged in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities, including those that suppress, harass, surveil, threaten, or harm journalists, activists, or other persons perceived to be dissidents for their work…” The ban was placed on 18 Saudis who were linked to Khashoggi’s murder — but not to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
No sanctions have been levied against Saudi Arabia or against the Crown Prince, even though Khashoggi’s murder would clearly fall under the Magnitsky Act, which allows targeted sanctions, such as freezing assets and bank accounts, of individuals who commit human rights violations.
The UN and other international agencies have widely criticized the Biden administration’s tepid response as “shocking,” and that it sends a dangerous message to would-be killers of journalists that “as long as they have a friendly relationship with the United States they can proceed with killing dissidents.”
Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken, when questioned about the US’ response, explained that the value of the US/Saudi relationship is too important to “rupture” and that “in order to advance the interests and values of the US, it’s important to deal with them.”
There is hope, however. Many in Congress are working to pass legislation to sanction Saudi Arabia and the Crown Prince, even if Biden won’t do so. Last year, Representatives Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), James P. McGovern (D-MA), and Andy Kim (D-NJ) introduced the Saudi Arabia Accountability for Gross Violations of Human Rights Act (HR 2037), which would extend the Khashoggi Ban to the Crown Prince. It would also go further, clearing the way to ending arms sales and security aid to Saudi Arabia under existing human-rights laws. As of this writing, the bill had passed the House, but was still under review by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
While a Google search for “Khashoggi’s last words” returns the transcript of his murder, his real final words are much more powerful, and deserve to be remembered. His final column, which the Washington Post received the day after he was reported missing, is titled “What the Arab World Needs Most is Free Expression.”
Rest in power, Mr. Khashoggi.