Agnes Callamard Q&A: ‘Saudi is responsible for Khashoggi murder’

In exclusive interview with Al Jazeera, UN special rapporteur stresses journalist’s death ‘was a killing by the state’.

Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and a Washington Post columnist, was murdered on October 2, 2018, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

He had entered the building in Turkey’s largest city to receive papers he needed to marry his Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, who was waiting for him outside. His remains have not been found.

The Saudi public prosecutor indicted 11 unnamed suspects in November, including five who could face the death penalty on charges of ordering and committing the crime.

The CIA, as well as some Western countries, has reportedly concluded that the crown prince ordered the killing, which Saudi officials deny.


In a much-anticipated report released on Wednesday, the United Nations extrajudicial executions investigator, Agnes Callamard, said Khashoggi’s death “constituted an extrajudicial killing for which the State of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible”.

MBS and other senior Saudi officials should be investigated over the murder of journalist Khashoggi since there was credible evidence they were liable for his death, she said.

Among others, Callamard also called on countries to invoke universal jurisdiction for what she called the international crime and make arrests if individuals’ responsibility was proven.

Al Jazeera’s Folly Bah Thibault spoke to Callamard shortly after the release of the report. The interview has been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Al Jazeera: Who is responsible for Khashoggi’s murder?

Agnes CallamardThe state of Saudi Arabia is first and foremost responsible for the murder. It’s important to insist that the execution of Khashoggi was a killing by the state. We have focused extensively on the identity of various individuals that were involved in the commission of the crime, but first and foremost we must insist on putting the responsibility for the killing to the state of Saudi Arabia – it must bear responsibility for that killing and it must take action as a state to repair the killing.

Al Jazeera: Did the Saudi crown prince directly order Khashoggi’s murder?

Callamard: I have found no evidence regarding who ordered the killing; it does not mean the evidence doesn’t exist, it just means that I was not been able to locate it.

What I would like to highlight as well is that the responsibility for state killings does mean that we need to be more sophisticated in the way we define responsibilities.

Of course, who ordered is important, but there are a range of other responsibilities that are involved in the commission of the crime that are very similar to what we call chain-of-command responsibilities in a military setting – but applying that concept to a civilian setting.

So is somebody [responsible] for inciting directly or indirectly? Did somebody fail to prevent the execution? This is why I have called for a criminal investigation into the execution so that those responsibilities can be identified.

FILE PHOTO: People attend a symbolic funeral prayer for Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the courtyard of Fatih mosque in Istanbul
People attend a symbolic funeral prayer for Jamal Khashoggi at the courtyard of Fatih mosque in Istanbul [File: Huseyin Aldemir/Reuters]

I am pointing out that the execution of the killing of Khashoggi was preceded over the year by a range of violations that had been well reported, denounced and monitored.

There is no way the highest level of the state of Saudi Arabia, including the crown prince, were not aware of those repeated violations. Therefore, for the 12 months at least that preceded the execution of Khashoggi, there were many opportunities to take steps to prevent and stop further violations – those steps were not taken.

The execution of Khashoggi falls within that context, within a campaign directed at people perceived to be undermining or threatening the state. The responsibility with those in charge of the state is just engaged.

Al Jazeera: From what you have studied, to what extent was Khashoggi’s murder premeditated?

Callamard: Based on the information that was made available to me, including some 70 minutes of recording in the days leading up to and on the day of his execution, there is little doubt in my mind that the killing was premeditated. It was planned.


Whether it was planned as the first objective, or the second objective, that I could not determine. It may be possible that the primary objective was the kidnapping of Khashoggi, which is also, by the way, a violation of international human rights law.

It is possible the kidnapping was a first objective and the killing was an option if the kidnapping failed. But steps were taken as part of the preparations for the mission to plan for a possible or an actual execution.

Al Jazeera: From what you heard in the audio tapes that were submitted to you, what steps did Khashoggi’s killers take prior to him entering the consulate?

Callamard: The team that I have identified as having executed the killing of Khashoggi included a forensic doctor; it is very difficult to imagine that you would include a forensic doctor in a team for only carrying out an abduction. That is the first thing.

Secondly, the recordings before the executions – recordings I have been able to listen to with my personal interpreter – indicate that an hour before the killing, the dismemberment of Khashoggi’s body was already discussed by the doctor and other individuals.

Those are indications in my view that at a minimum, the killing was indeed planned and prepared for.

Al Jazeera: What did you learn in these recordings about the way Khashoggi’s body was disposed of?

Callamard: His remains have not been found and I must highlight the fact that the recordings need to be interpreted, they do not tell a very straightforward story. What was done to his body I cannot deduct from the sounds that I have heard.

UN: Saudi Arabia must accept responsibility for Khashoggi murder

I can infer from the sounds that something was done, and based on the technical knowledge of the various people I have consulted it is well possible that Khashoggi was first injected with something and then that he was asphyxiated with a plastic bag. This is one of the possibilities.

The nature and the extent of the dismemberment of his body, I cannot comment upon, it’s not possible.

As far as the recording that I have heard is concerned, when Khashoggi loses consciousness there is no evidence of the people that are there in the room attempting to take care of him, resuscitate him, or do something … There is no attempt to do something and there are no screams nor any expression of fear over what is happening.

Al Jazeera: Do you think that there is anyone today who knows where the remains of Khashoggi are?

Callamard: Yes, absolutely: The people that were in the room and disposed of the body. There were 15 individuals involved with that mission.

Al Jazeera: Do you think the Saudi leadership knows where the remains are?

Callamard: I do not know. This is not something I have tried to determine.

Al Jazeera: What do you hope will happen now that you have released this report?

Callamard: My report makes a range of recommendations, including to Saudi Arabia. As a special rapporteur, I am committed to constructing constructive relationships with the governments that I work with.

I have attempted to work with Saudi Arabia for the last six months; they have not shown any interest in doing so.

My report includes a range of recommendations, including with regards to the ongoing trial, including with regards to the steps that Saudi Arabia should take to demonstrate non-repetition, which is a fundamental dimension of their responsibilities given that I have established that the responsibility of the state is involved.

FILE PHOTO: Activists protest the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during demonstration outside the White House in Washington
Activists dressed as MBS and Trump shake hands during a demonstration to protest the disappearance of Khashoggi, outside the White House [File: Leah Millis/Reuters]

Non-repetition will mean, among other things, freeing all those that are currently imprisoned or arrested on the basis of the peaceful expression of their opinions and an actual follow-up investigation into the security services and how such an execution could have been carried out by members of the security services.

The obligation of non-repetition is what I am placing a lot of emphasis on and I am calling on the authorities of Saudi Arabia to take the necessary steps to demonstrate to the international community that they are indeed committed to ensure these crimes are never repeated.

Al Jazeera: Do you think Saudi Arabia is committed to that? Have they been forthcoming about this trial that is ongoing in Saudi Arabia of suspects involved in the murder?

Callamard: The fact that the Saudi Arabia government has not wanted to work with me does not necessarily mean they are not committed. I think, however, that there is a fundamental problem with the way the government of Saudi Arabia is approaching the issue.

They are insisting to treat this as only a domestic question and they are losing sight of their international obligations under international human rights law.


The execution of Khashoggi is an international crime. The violations are multiple: the violation of the right to life, the arbitrary deprivation of life, the violations of the prohibition against enforced disappearance, the possible violation of the convention against torture, the violations of the Vienna convention on consular relations and the violations on the prohibition against extraterritorial force, just to name a few.

That makes the crime against Khashoggi an international issue that requires them to treat it as such. At the moment, the steps they have taken are failing to take stock of the real nature of the crime and their obligations.

Al Jazeera: What would you like the UN secretary-general to do now that you have released this report?

Callamard: First, I should highlight that I am an independent expert that has been mandated by the UN to work on situational extrajudicial executions, so while my inquiry is not a human rights inquiry, it is based on a mandate that was given to me by the member states of the UN.

Second, I am calling on the secretary-general to appoint a panel of experts who could look into criminal responsibilities. I have done the human rights investigation, the next step I cannot do – [it] is a criminal investigation and I hope that the secretary-general will do just that.

Investigators Search Saudi Consular Buildings
Turkish police entered and searched the Saudi Arabian consulate on October 15 amid a growing international backlash about the disappearance [File: Chris McGrath/Getty]

I do not believe that he needs Turkey in particular to call on such an investigation formally.

More generally, I think that the UN has a major role to play to ensure that it has the effective instruments and tools to prevent and respond to targeted killings and targeted disappearances.

In my report, I make a range of recommendations, including the establishment of a standing instrument for the investigation of targeted killings so that in the future the kind of problems that we have confronted over who had the role with what will not be happening.

Al Jazeera: You said in the report that this an international crime with universal jurisdiction. If not Turkey, what other country do you think could take on this push for an international inquiry?

CallamardIn my opinion, the circumstances of the killing of Khashoggi are so grave in terms of the violations of international law that, in my opinion, it meets the threshold of seriousness required for universal jurisdiction.

With regards to the responsibility of states, besides Turkey, I am suggesting that the United States has a stake in solving the killing.


Khashoggi was a resident of the US, he was a known and renowned member of the press in the US, and in many ways, in my opinion, he embodied a fundamental freedom and principle within the American constitution, which is the First Amendment.

For those reasons, I believe the US has a stake in pursuing all means at its disposal to ensure that accountability is delivered, including a trial.

Al Jazeera: How hopeful are you that what you have said today in this report will lead to more action from the US and, in particular, from the administration of President Donald Trump?

Callamard: The US is a country where the judicial system and the judicial institutions remain independent and impartial. If there are proceedings initiated by individuals, I see no systemic reasons that would prevent those complaints proceeding as per the American system.

The president and others may have their own misgivings regarding a trial and a criminal or civil investigation but I do not think this will impact on American institutions, including the justice system or indeed on the American Congress or Senate to proceed with what they to be their key function.

Al Jazeera: Coming back to the trial that is ongoing in Saudi Arabia, do you think that those responsible for the murder are the ones on trial right now?

CallamardBased on what I have been able to gather, the 11 individuals currently on trial include those who were in the room during the killing of Khashoggi and in the vicinity of the room, so they were involved in the commission of the crime.

The question I have, of course, is about other individuals. They include someone who has been often mentioned as having incited and ordered the crime, Saud al-Qahtani, that has been identified by the Saudi prosecutor and was indeed the object of administrative measures since he was supposedly fired from his position, but he has not been indicted.

There are a number of other individuals that have not been indicted thus far, so this raises a range of red flags.

But importantly the proceedings are not transparent, the trial is being held behind closed doors and the identities of those on trial has not been made public by the authorities even though the execution of Khashoggi is an international crime and it is a crime for which the international community has as much interest in and has a role to play.

Al Jazeera: Are you hopeful and optimistic that there will ever be accountability in the murder of Khashoggi?

Callamard: I am hopeful, because otherwise, I would not be working in human rights.

But I am also realistic and pragmatic. I believe that accountability for Khashoggi can take many forms – judicial accountability is, of course, the highest objective and something I’m hoping will happen but aside from that we also need to look for other forms of accountability. They can be diplomatic, they can be political, they can be symbolic.

In my report, I make a range of recommendations, such as the establishment of special phones to support press freedom in the middle east, the creation of different symbolic events and conferences, based on what Khashoggi stood for at the end of his life so that we ensure his commitment to democracy, human rights and press freedom do find a realisation through the actions of individual states, civil society and the media.

Source: Al Jazeera