Washington, DC – A bipartisan and influential group of US senators called on President Donald Trump to investigate and potentially sanction Saudi Arabia under US human rights law for the disappearance and alleged murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In a letter released by Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the senators invoked terms of the 2012 Magnitsky Act requiring the president “to determine whether a foreign person is responsible for an extrajudicial killing” and demanding a report to Congress within 120 days.
“Our expectation is that in making your determination you will consider any relevant information, including with respect to the highest-ranking officials in the government of Saudi Arabia,” the letter signed by 22 senators said on Wednesday.
The Magnitsky Act provides for an automatic trigger if members of Congress request an investigation. The law sought to punish Russian officials for the death of Russian accountant Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison in 2009 and led to the sanctioning of a number of high-ranking Russians by the Obama administration.
Khashoggi, 59, a Saudi national who had been living in the United States for the past year, entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 2 to obtain papers for his planned marriage. His fiancee reported him missing when he did not come out. Turkish investigating authorities have told state-owned media Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate.
The Saudi government has denied that and said he left the building unharmed.
Saudi-US turning point?
The incident has received widespread attention in the US where it prompted outcries from friends and colleagues of Khashoggi, free press advocates and critics of the Saudi war in Yemen.
Details of the Turkish allegations – that Khashoggi was ensnared at the consulate by a 15-man Saudi hit squad, killed and dismembered – have shocked American political elites.
Analysts say Khashoggi’s suspected death is likely to mark a turning point in US-Saudi relations and will pose a challenge to the Trump administration, which has relied on the Saudi monarchy to assert its policy goals in the Middle East.
“The administration has decided that, of all the Arab actors in the region, they are banking on the Saudis as the critical linchpin for at least three elements of their regional policy: Containing and confronting Iran, securing Saudi help in the seemingly hopeless Israeli-Palestinian peace process and counting on the Saudis to help moderate oil prices,” said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East analyst at the Wilson Center in Washington.
“Into this context comes this incredibly brazen, horrible act. So how does the administration then reconcile that with 600-plus days of policy? I don’t know where they go. They will work to find the balance. I don’t know if they will succeed or not,” Miller told Al Jazeera.
President Trump didn’t speak about Khashoggi until October 8 when he told reporters at the White House he didn’t “like” what he was hearing and that he expected the situation to “sort itself out” – words that brought the president criticism. Trump amplified his concern in comments on Wednesday at the White House, calling it a “bad situation” and promising to demand answers from Saudi officials.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders issued a statement saying National Security Adviser John Bolton and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner had spoken with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman about Khashoggi, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo followed up with an additional call to the crown prince.
“In both calls, they asked for more details and for the Saudi government to be transparent in the investigation process,” Sanders told White House reporters.
The biggest potential impact of Khashoggi’s disappearance is going to be on perceptions in the US of Saudi Arabia and bin Salman, who has cultivated an image of being a progressive reformer and a leader working to bring the kingdom into a more democratic future. In a widely publicised visit to the US last year, bin Salman reached out to segments of society with visits to Washington, New York, Boston and Los Angeles.
“If there is more evidence and, as one would expect, it turns out he was actually killed deliberately, I think it is going to be a turning point in how American political elites view Saudi Arabia. It is going to be a game-changer in perception,” Shibley Telhami, a pollster at the University of Maryland, told Al Jazeera.
Friends and former colleagues of Khashoggi announced a #JusticeforJamal campaign at a press conference in front The Washington Post newspaper, where he had been a well-regarded opinion columnist, and organised a vigil by about 35 people in front of the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
“It’s obvious this has reached beyond anything else,” said Medea Benjamin, a leader and cofounder of the CodePink anti-war group, which has been challenging US officials on American military support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen.
“It’s ironic that you can kill all of these poor schoolchildren and so many thousands of innocent people in Yemen and yet the US continues to sell them weapons,” Benjamin told Al Jazeera. “There is a now a person who has disappeared who is more important to the people in power because he was a journalist and works for a US paper and was a US resident.”
‘Stop sending arms’
Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican who led an effort to block US arms sales to Saudi Arabia that fell four votes short in the Senate last year, said he would seek another vote.
“If they’re responsible, or even if there’s any indication that they’re implicated in killing this journalist that was critical of them, we’ve got to stop sending them arms,” Paul told a Louisville a radio station, News Radio 840 WHAS.
Trump recently embarrassed the Saudis saying in US political rallies the monarchy is propped up by US military power and “wouldn’t last two weeks” without US support.
Mongi Dhaouadi, a regional director of United Voices of America, a non-profit group that promotes Muslim civic engagement in the US, said Khashoggi was preparing to launch a new pro-democracy group called DAWN, an acronym for Democracy in the Arab World Now.
Khashoggi’s friends fear that’s why he may have been killed by the Saudi government.
“He was actually going to head the group. He was going to be the CEO,” Dhaouadi told Al Jazeera.
“In terms of the Trump administration, we don’t think that they will change. We have hopes that within Congress, especially the Senate at this point, there are some voices on both sides of the aisle.”
‘Hell to pay’
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican close to Trump and among the 22 senators demanding action, told reporters on Capitol Hill “there would be hell to pay” if the Turkish government’s allegations are true.
“If this man was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, that would cross every line of normality in the international community,” Graham said.
Other signatories to the Magnitsky letter include Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, as well as Senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Marco Rubio of Florida, Ben Cardin of Maryland, and Tim Kaine of Virginia.
Kaine, a Democrat and former vice-presidential running-mate to Hillary Clinton, said in a tweet: “Jamal Khashoggi is a Virginia resident, so his disappearance is personal to me.”
Representative Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, said at the #JusticeforJamal press conference that he viewed Khashoggi as a constituent.
“The fact that Jamal was not a US citizen does not mean that he was not my constituent,” Connolly said. “My district has citizens and non-citizens alike and they are entitled to the protection of the United States laws and diplomatic activity on their behalf. And I take Jamal’s personal security as seriously as I would any constituent of mine.”
Defenders of press freedom decried Khashoggi’s disappearance and called for a sharp response by the US government. National Press Club President Andrea Edney said in a statement: “If harm has come to him, those responsible must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
The group PEN America, which advocates for free expression of journalists and artists worldwide, joined the #JusticeforJamal campaign.
“It’s a bit difficult to say with certainty exactly what has happened and we want to remain hopeful that Jamal is alive and there will be a resolution to this that returns him to his family,” Summer Lopez, a senior director at PEN America, told Al Jazeera.
But, “if the Saudi government carried out a murder inside a diplomatic facility in Turkey, that is a pretty drastic situation and will likely have some real repercussions for the US-Saudi relationship,” Lopez said.
“The reaction we’ve seen from Congress already is quite significant.”