‘This is the moment’: Calls for action after Khashoggi verdict

Experts say Saudi prosecution of Jamal Khashoggi’s killers violated human rights, call for international investigation.

STANBUL, TURKEY - (ARCHIVE) : A file photo dated May 6, 2018 shows Prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, Turkey. Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi died after a brawl inside the Saudi
Five people were sentenced to death for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi [File: Omar Shagaleh/Anadolu]

A number of legal experts and human rights activists have criticised the Saudi judicial system after a criminal court in the capital, Riyadh, delivered its verdict on the Jamal Khashoggi case.

The court on Monday sentenced five people to death and handed prison sentences to three others for the brutal killing of Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist, in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018.

In the wake of the verdict, Agnes Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur on arbitrary, summary or extrajudicial executions, as well as human rights activists, have criticised the Saudi trial and renewed calls for the involvement of the international community through an international investigation and trial.

“The Saudi Arabian judicial system and judicial culture does not allow them to ensure accountability. Even with all the pressure from around the world, the system is unable to deliver anything else than the full protection of the powerful at the expense of the small and powerless,” Callamard, who has consistently objected to a domestic Saudi trial, told Al Jazeera.

‘No due process’

Several experts said that due process standards were not applied in the case, highlighting the secrecy of the trial, the absence of an independent judiciary and the imposition of the death penalty as causes for concern.

“The case is shrouded in absolute secrecy with no due process for the defendants or the victim. We don’t have information about the most basic facts on why Khashoggi was killed, who ordered the killing or what was done to his body,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa Director ,at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera. “There is no justification or excuse for keeping the facts of the case, and what has been disclosed, secret.”

According to Omaima al-Najjar, a Saudi human rights activist and blogger, the absence of an independent judiciary in Saudi Arabia was a major concern with the trial. “There is no separation of powers in Saudi Arabia which means there can be no expectation of due process in criminal cases,” al-Najjar told Al Jazeera.

With regard to the court’s finding that the killing was not premeditated, Callamard said “this defies the evidence” and that the finding was in keeping with Mohammed bin Salman‘s claim that the killing was “an accident”.

Callamard also criticised the court’s application of the law, saying that it violates human rights to convict someone for murder without the element of intent present.

Experts also regard the imposition of the death penalty as a human rights violation. Whitson said that “the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment that we as Human Rights Watch oppose in all circumstances especially in heavily politicised cases such as this.”

Ali al-Ahmed, Saudi analyst and director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, questioned the fairness of the verdict, stating that there are no witness testimonies or cross-examination in criminal trials of this kind in Saudi Arabia. 

According to al-Ahmed, the lawyers of the convicted men intend to appeal the judgement. The Saudi judicial system allows 30 days for an appeal to be filed. Al-Ahmed confirmed that the Saudi court will not issue a written judgement, meaning that the public would not have access to the reasoning of the judges.

International observers

Activists have also called for the international community to prevent the Saudi authorities from executing the five men who have been sentenced to death and whose identities have not been made public.

Yahya Assiri, the head of the human rights organisation ALQST, said he was concerned that the relevant facts about the circumstances of Khashoggi’s killing might never be uncovered if the convicted men were to be executed.

Although the trial was held behind closed doors, a number of international observers attended the proceedings. Assiri said that the international observers who attended the trial, one representative from Turkey and five observers representing the UN Security Council, who were all sworn to secrecy, should speak about the process. 

“This is the moment. The international observers must end their silence and speak out about the injustice of the trial,” he told Al Jazeera. 

Internationalisation of trial

Callamard has repeatedly called for an international investigation into Khashoggi’s death, as well as for the establishment of a standing instrument to investigate the targeted killings of journalists. She has further called on Saudi Arabia to demonstrate non-repetition and upon the CIA to declassify its files on the killing.

But Luciano Zaccara, an assistant professor in Gulf politics at Qatar University, questioned the likelihood of Saudi Arabia cooperating with an international investigation.

“It is almost impossible that an international investigation will go ahead since the Saudi government now considers the case to be closed, thus there will be no authorisation to interrogate anyone inside the kingdom”, he told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera