Still no justice

Far from a pariah state after the assassination of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia features ever more prominently on the world stage. How do Saudi activists keep fighting when the world is looking away? By Cathrin Schaer

By Cathrin Schaer

Saudi human rights activists working to get justice for Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered five years ago on Monday, want to see the international community take a less transactional approach to their country.

We know we live in the real world and that governments must deal with Saudi Arabia, said Abdullah Alaoudh, Saudi director at the US-based Freedom Initiative. "But ignoring human rights, ignoring basic democratic values, when dealing with dictatorships and autocratic regimes doesn't serve a country's own strategic interests or bring about human rights," he argued. "When you trade your freedoms for security, you get neither."

"When dealing with Saudi Arabia, we believe there is a way to navigate current politics without being naive," added Lina al-Hathloul, head of advocacy at the UK-based organisation, ALQST for Human Rights ("al-qist" means "justice" in Arabic). "You can buy Saudi oil and criticise the gross human rights abuses of Saudi Arabia at the same time," she stressed. "Saudi Arabia has leverage, but the world – the EU, UK and US, in particular – also has leverage over Saudi Arabia, and they should be using it," she said. 

Al-Hathloul has been campaigning for justice for her sister, Loujain, a women's rights activist, for years. The latter fought to end a prohibition on female drivers in Saudi Arabia but was imprisoned for almost three years for it. Loujain is currently out of prison but is banned from leaving Saudi Arabia. And Alaoudh's father, Salman, an Islamic scholar, is still a political prisoner back in Saudi Arabia. He was arrested in 2017 after advocating for peaceful co-existence between Qatar and other Gulf states in a tweet.

However, this week, both human rights activists spoke to DW about the Khashoggi case. It remains one of the most high-profile cases of Saudi abuse, but world attention seems to have shifted away over the past few years.

A street sign for Jamal Khashoggi Way is unveiled during a ceremony outside the Embassy of Saudi Arabia as guests listen to speakers in Washington, DC, United States, 15 June 2022 (image: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi remains "one of the most high-profile cases of Saudi abuse," writes Cathrin Schaer, "but world attention seems to have shifted away over the past few years." In recent weeks, international media attention on Saudi Arabia has shifted to the potential normalization of Saudi–Israeli relations and a rumoured defence pact with the United States

Over the last month, international media attention on Saudi Arabia has been firmly focused on things like potential normalisation with Israel, a rumoured defence pact with the United States, how the Saudis might link their power grid to Greece's and excitement that US electric automaker Lucid was setting up its first plant inside Saudi Arabia.

Five years ago, headlines featuring Saudi Arabia were very different. "CIA concludes Saudi crown prince ordered Jamal Khashoggi's assassination," the Washington Post said. "Killing Khashoggi: how a brutal Saudi hit job unfolded," a New York Times visual investigation pronounced. "Jamal Khashoggi: Murder in the consulate," The Guardian wrote. 

How did Khashoggi die?

On 2 October 2018, Khashoggi went to a pre-arranged appointment at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He was picking up a paper certifying his divorce so he could marry Turkish academic Hatice Cengiz.

Previously, Khashoggi had been a prominent figure in Saudi Arabia, with his family having long been close to the Saudi royals. But after the man who is now the country's de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, began to rise to power, he fell out of favour.

Khashoggi emigrated to the US in 2017, where he began to publish more outspoken, anti-government editorials in the Washington Post. In 2018, he met Cengiz and proposed marriage. This is why, on 2 October, Cengiz says she waited outside the Saudi consulate for him for 10 hours. He never came out. 

In the ensuing months, in an attention-getting row of accusations, denials and counter-claims, it emerged that Khashoggi had been killed inside the Saudi consulate. His corpse had been dismembered, and his body was never found. 

As gruesome details emerged, Saudi Arabia called it a "rogue" operation carried out by its operatives but without the knowledge of the government. Bin Salman denied any personal involvement. 

In December 2018, after a closed trial, Saudi Arabia sentenced five people to death for Khashoggi's murder and imprisoned three more for between seven and 10 years. The death sentences were later commuted to 20 years in prison, and Saudi authorities proclaimed the case closed.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman takes part in the investors' conference on 28 October 2018 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (image: picture-alliance/dpa)
In a statement released in 2021, the US Director of National Intelligence said "We assess that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi"

'High unlikely' murder happened without prince's authorisation

Others disagreed with the Saudi version of events, including US and Turkish intelligence agencies and the UN's special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings.

"We assess that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi," the US Director of National Intelligence said in a 2021 statement. It is "highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince's authorisation."

The closed-door trial in Saudi Arabia was widely disparaged. But there have been other attempts to exact some justice for Khashoggi.

In 2020, Turkey put 26 Saudi nationals on trial in absentia – the Saudis refused to hand them over to Istanbul – but early in 2022, the case was halted. Turkish authorities said it was impossible to prosecute the case because the defendants were not there in person. However, human rights organisations claimed the decision was political, a result of Turkey and Saudi Arabia reconciling after the murder.

Cengiz and the US-based organisation Khashoggi helped found, Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN, also launched a civil case in the US. However, this case was dismissed at the end of 2022, when the US government ruled that bin Salman had immunity from prosecution because he was a head of state. The prince was appointed Saudi prime minister in September 2022. 

Despite his engagement to Cengiz, it emerged that Khashoggi had already married another woman, an Egyptian named Hanan Elatr, earlier in 2018. In June this year, Elatr launched a civil suit against Israeli spyware firm, the NSO Group, which allegedly helped install the notorious Pegasus spyware on her mobile phone. This helped Saudi authorities track Khashoggi, she said. The NSO Group denies targeting Elatr.

Back in Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi's four adult children have received property worth millions in compensation for the murder of their father. Saudi officials say this is typical of local tribal law in the country, which demands compensation, often financial, from perpetrator to victim.[embed:render:embedded:node:37441]

Yet, despite some ongoing legal action around the Khashoggi case, it's very clear the world has moved on.

In 2020, US President Joe Biden threatened to turn Saudi Arabia into a "global pariah" over the high-profile murder. Just over a week ago, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken released a statement on the occasion of Saudi Arabia's national day, expressing how the US "greatly values the enduring relationship we have had with Saudi Arabia over the past eight decades."

Analysts argue that Western leaders and others have been studiously ignoring the latest human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and placing their domestic interests first. In particular, Saudi oil is essential, as is the country's financial clout and deliberate attempts to become an important diplomatic player.

So how do Saudi activists like Alaoudh and al-Hathloul keep protesting, even as the world moves on? 

Dictators don't bring stability

"We keep fighting anyway," al-Hathloul said. "As a Saudi, I believe that fighting for Jamal will, in the long term, bring justice to him, his family and his legacy. And in the short term, we're making sure we remind people that this could happen again," she argued, pointing to recent draconian sentences given to Saudi citizens simply for expressing an opinion on social media.

Based in Washington, Alaoudh is trying to convince US officials working on foreign policy to re-evaluate what he describes as the false dichotomy between political reality and human rights and toppling the idea that dictators bring stability.

"Because you're not just losing the people of Saudi Arabia with that kind of thinking," he argued. "You're losing everybody. Because you send the wrong signal to the world and to every dictator that as long as you're sitting on top of an oil well, you can literally get away with murder."

Cathrin Schaer

© Deutsche Welle 2023