Senate Foreign Relations Committee must keep up pressure over Khashoggi

October 25, 2018 3:24 PM ET

Senator Bob Corker
United States Senate
425 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Senator Bob Menendez
United States Senate
528 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Re: Jamal Khashoggi and the Global Magnitsky Act

Dear Chairman Corker and Ranking Member Menendez,

I am writing on behalf of the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent press freedom advocacy organization, to thank you and your fellow senators for your October 10 letter to President Donald J. Trump. The letter triggered a provision in the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act of 2016 that requires the president to investigate the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and report back to you within 120 days as to whether his administration will impose targeted sanctions on those found responsible.

Your letter--signed by nearly every member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as well as the chairman and ranking member of the Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs--represented a swift, bipartisan action in defense of press freedom. For this, we are grateful.

In the weeks since your letter was sent to President Trump, the Turkish government and international media outlets have uncovered various findings that have helped shed light on what exactly happened to Khashoggi, and who may be responsible. It is now clear that Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul; the Saudis admit this, after first denying his death. But many questions remain.

Given the complexity of the situation, and the strong possibility that senior Saudi officials bear responsibility, CPJ has two requests for the committee:

  1. The committee should ensure the Trump administration conducts a thorough investigation by November 16, which is 45 days since Khashoggi disappeared at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and holds all those responsible to account.

  1. The committee should consider holding a hearing on Saudi Arabia to consider evidence of official involvement in the Khashoggi murder, the systematic persecution of journalists in the kingdom, its broader influence in the region, and possible responses--including sanctions, travel bans, prohibitions on arms sales, and other punitive measures.

A 15-member team, some of which were linked to the state security apparatus known as the State Security Presidency, arrived in Istanbul the day of Khashoggi's disappearance and left the same day, the Guardian reported. Intelligence officials have alleged that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the operation, according to The New York Times, and Turkish news reports indicate that several of squad were members of the Saudi Royal Guards.

While it may be difficult to trust reports from the Turkish government, given its own poor record on press freedom, journalists at The New York Times and The Washington Post have confirmed several key facts.

Even absent confirmation of all the reported details, the U.S. government must consider the strong likelihood that such an operation could only have originated from the State Security Presidency with the knowledge of the crown prince.

The Saudi royal family is sprawling, and the government's decision-making process opaque, but Mohammed bin Salman's ruthless quest to smother independent journalism and consolidate power has actually created a clearer target for potential Magnitsky sanctions.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented how Crown Prince Mohammed's Saudi Arabia has detained journalists at an alarming rate, even by the kingdom's already repressive standards. Eman Al Nafjan, a blogger and prominent advocate for ending the kingdom's ban on women driving, was detained in May by authorities reporting to the State Security Presidency, and CPJ also learned that Marwan al-Mureisi, an established columnist who steered clear of politics, was detained by intelligence agents at the hospital bedside of his five-year-old son in Riyadh.

Their arrests, along with the arrests of others who were peacefully expressing themselves, have a common thread: the Presidency of State Security. According to Reuters, the creation of this body on July 20, 2017, consolidated all of the kingdom's security and intelligence services under one roof and elevated its head, Abdulaziz bin Mohammed al-Howairini, to the level of minister while retaining his role as director of general intelligence. The move gutted the security and intelligence jurisdiction of the interior ministry and consolidated power over the Saudi security apparatus in the hands of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed.

Understanding this move is critical for the White House and Congress as the Trump administration investigates culpability for Khashoggi's death and considers actions to pursue justice.

In fact, amid the firings and arrests meant to demonstrate their commitment to justice, the Saudi government has ordered the restructuring of its general intelligence service, sacked its head, Saud al-Qahtani--a top aide for the crown prince who is implicated in Khashoggi's murder--and put none other than the crown prince in charge, Reuters reported.

There is no single path to justice for the murder of Khashoggi and, given the strength of Saudi influence and unreliability of the Turkish government on press freedom, there must be multiple efforts on different fronts. That is why CPJ joined Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Reporters Without Borders this month in calling on Turkey to request that the United Nations establish an international investigation.

But the U.S. government also has a role to play in these efforts. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee should continue to pressure the Trump administration to investigate and respond accordingly, and consider pursuing its own actions in order to learn more about Khashoggi's murder, broader human rights repression in Saudi Arabia, and how the U.S. can constructively engage on the issue to prevent future situations like this. If the Saudis can get away with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, then no journalist anywhere is safe.

Sincerely,

Michael De Dora
Washington Advocacy Manager
Committee to Protect Journalists

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