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Jamal Khashoggi: death for dissent

A poster of Jamal Khashoggi. AP J. Scott Applewhite  

In a column written in The Washington Post on May 21, Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi journalist, slammed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for cracking down on the kingdom’s social reform campaigners. “We are being asked to abandon any hope of political freedom, and to keep quiet about arrests and travel bans that impact not only the critics but also their families,” he wrote. This was one of the many columns he wrote in the newspaper attacking MBS, as the Crown Prince is widely known. He urged the Crown Prince to release arrested campaigners, “restore dignity in Yemen,” the country that has been bombed by a Saudi-led coalition for almost four years, and attacked him for creating “a total mess in Lebanon.”

What happened?

These articles understandably did not go down well with certain sections in Riyadh. On October 2, when Khashoggi, who was then living in the U.S. and was about to get married to a Turkish citizen, stepped into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul for some paperwork, a 15-member hit squad was waiting for him in the building. The details of what happened thereafter are yet to be fully revealed. According to Turkish prosecutors, Khashoggi was killed minutes after he entered the consulate and his body was cut up and dissolved in acid. Saudi Arabia, which initially said the journalist left the consulate freely, finally admitted that he was killed, but is yet to say what happened to his body. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 53 journalists were killed in 2018, including Khashoggi, risking their lives to tell stories. Riyadh blames the murder on a rogue operation, distancing the Crown Prince from it. Khashoggi’s story is that of an ally who turned a critic.

What did he report on?

As a journalist, he had covered the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the rise of Osama bin Laden for various Saudi publications. He had interviewed bin Laden several times in the 1980s and the 1990s. When bin Laden was killed by U.S. commandos in 2011 in Pakistan’s Abbottabad, Khashoggi tweeted: “I collapsed crying a while ago, heartbroken for you Abu Abdullah.” He also had a long friendly relationship with the Saudi royal family. Khashoggi was appointed editor of Al Watan, a state-controlled daily in the kingdom, twice. He was a close aide of Turki bin Faisal, a former chief of the Saudi intelligence agency, and former Ambassador to the U.S. He launched a short-lived television station from Bahrain that was funded by billionaire Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

Why the fall-out with royals?

But Khashoggi fell out with the royal family after the rise of Mohammed bin Salman. The wrath of the new rulers of Riyadh fell upon him first in December 2016 when he criticised U.S. president-elect Donald Trump. Khashoggi was first banned from writing in newspapers, making TV appearances and attending events. In June 2017, he moved to the U.S. and started writing The Washington Post column within a few months. In his first column for the newspaper, Khashoggi wrote that he feared arrest in Saudi Arabia as the kingdom was cracking down on dissent. Since then, he never shied away from attacking Riyadh. He also had sympathetic views on the Muslim Brotherhood, the political Islamist group which the Saudi monarchy sees as a threat to itself.

Will anyone own up?

Turkey claims that it has an audio recording of the killing of Khashoggi. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) apparently believes that the Crown Prince ordered the hit. In the U.S., a number of Senators have urged the Trump administration to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the Khashoggi murder. But the Trump administration has shown no interest in taking any step against Riyadh other than the token sanctions already announced. Riyadh insists that the operation was carried out without the Crown Prince’s approval and that the perpetrators will be punished.

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Printable version | May 9, 2021 8:25:11 AM |

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