Khashoggi’s murder: It is time for accountability

The Biden administration should not let those responsible for the brutal assassination get away with it.

A demonstrator wearing a mask of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a protest outside the Saudi Arabia consulate where the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was last seen in Istanbul, Turkey on October 25, 2018 [File: Reuters/Osman Orsal]

In 2018, Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi went to the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to pick up documents he needed for his wedding. He never walked out.

Inside the consulate, a team was waiting to kill him with the tools necessary to make sure his body was never found again. It was an attempt to make a critic simply disappear and be forgotten. That strategy appears to have worked for more than two years as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS), widely reported to be responsible for the murder, has escaped any meaningful form of accountability.

But this week we saw a glimmer of hope that the crown prince will be eventually held accountable. The Biden administration released an unclassified intelligence report about Khashoggi’s killing, thus offering an official confirmation that the prince was involved in the murder. For more than two years, the Trump administration thwarted the efforts of the Open Society Justice Initiative in court to secure the release of records that would disclose such information, including this very report.

The report’s publication is a step towards establishing accountability and stopping the crown prince from literally getting away with the murder. But these revelations need to be followed with decisive action. For too long the US, the European Union and the United Kingdom have voiced condemnations of Khashoggi’s murder while in reality turning a blind eye to it.

With mounting evidence available, there now need to be consequences for such an egregious crime. On February 26, the State Department issued sanctions on 76 individuals, but not MBS. But that is not enough. It is unconscionable for the US government to let the murderer-in-chief – the crown prince – walk free from punishment. By only imposing travel and financial sanctions on lower-ranking officials, it sends a clear message that MBS and authoritarian leaders around the world can literally get away with murder and continue to persecute dissidents with impunity.

That is why Open Society is calling on the US, UK and other government and others around the world to end arms exports to Saudi Arabia and impose travel and financial sanctions on MBS and all others responsible for the murder. Failure to follow through with these actions would be unconscionable.

Ending all arms exports to Saudi Arabia would send a clear message that human rights violations will no longer be ignored in the interest of multibillion-dollar arms contracts. That reality was something former President Donald Trump was happy to brag about.

Last month, the Biden administration temporarily suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but it needs to go further and make the ban last as long as Saudi Arabia continues to engage in a consistent pattern of gross human rights violations. The US, along with the UK and France, is among the top arms exporters to Saudi Arabia.

Ending the arms exports would not only send a strong message over the Khashoggi murder, but also end Western complicity in another area where Saudi Arabia flaunts human rights and international humanitarian law: the bombing of civilians in neighbouring Yemen.

Furthermore, there should be targeted financial and travel sanctions that make consequences personal and not just abstract. MBS and his henchmen should face asset freezes and travel bans similar to those imposed by the US on Russian officials.

There is no reason for the crown prince to be allowed to visit his $300m French chateau while the crime he directed goes unpunished. Those who carried out his orders and have not thus far been sanctioned should also feel pressure and know there is no business as usual for them.

Releasing more official government information on Khashoggi’s murder would help ensure that he is not forgotten and guard against the repetition of such crimes. The report released this week was not the only record the Trump administration has withheld from us in our litigation.

A CIA report widely cited in the media, but not officially released, concluded with “medium to high confidence” that MBS ordered Khashoggi’s killing. In court, the Trump administration refused to even admit that it had the report. The court’s recent decision, however, requires the US government to identify the report and explain the legal basis for withholding it from the public.

Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancée, has called on President Joe Biden to break with the past and release the report.

Making new documents available to the public and taking decisive action against the Saudi government and the crown prince set the groundwork for further accountability measures. Official confirmation is vital for establishing public and legal accountability and taking action shows that the drive for accountability will not be left at vague statements expressing “concern”.

Though the latest documents may continue to come out of the US, no action will be effective unless it is supported by the international community. It is up to governments committed to free speech and democratic values to see to it that the path to accountability is realised.

Now that the report’s official findings are plain for all to see, failure to take decisive action against MBS and Saudi Arabia would be immoral. It would deprive Khashoggi and his family of their right to justice. And it would pave the way for Saudi Arabia and other authoritarian governments to continue to murder and persecute dissidents with impunity.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.