Justice denied: On Jamal Khashoggi case

The Khashoggi case convictions do little to enhance the global image of Saudi Arabia

December 25, 2019 12:02 am | Updated December 03, 2021 08:04 am IST

A Saudi Arabian court this week sentenced five men to death , convicted three to jail terms and acquitted three others for the gory murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. The verdict, described by some as a “mockery of justice”, appears to have accepted the official Saudi version of the events surrounding his assassination in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate in Turkey — that Saudi intelligence officials carried out an unsanctioned, rogue operation to execute a vocal critic of the authoritarian regime in Riyadh. However, multiple reports and accounts point to an operation likely planned at the highest level of government: a de facto indictment of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, his top adviser, Saud al-Qahtani, and the former deputy intelligence chief, Ahmed al-Assiri. Turkish intelligence inputs include video evidence that two Saudi hit squads arrived at the consulate the day before Mr. Khashoggi was killed, and grisly audio recordings and other proof of a scuffle, followed by his suffocation, and then the sawing of his bones. Unsurprisingly, his body was never recovered, and the Saudi establishment initially claimed that Mr. Khashoggi had left the consulate premises. Later, after further Turkish evidence was provided that a body double had left the consulate shortly after he was killed, Riyadh fell back on the “rogue agent” theory.


The flip-flopping statements on what transpired, the closed-door trial that led to this week’s court verdict, and the resolute denial that Mr. bin Salman or Mr. al-Qahtani had masterminded this scheme, have done much to degrade the Saudi regime’s overall credibility. Subsequent reports by CIA and UN experts found it “inconceivable that an operation of this scale could be implemented without the Crown Prince being aware, at a minimum, that some sort of mission of a criminal nature, directed at Mr. Khashoggi, was being launched.” There has also been political blowback against Riyadh: in December 2018 a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators introduced a sharply-worded resolution rebuking Mr. bin Salman for being “complicit” in the assassination , despite resistance from the White House. When Mr. bin Salman became Crown Prince in 2017, it was on the ostensible promise of reforming the Saudi socio-economic system toward more freedom and transparency, perhaps even a hint of democracy and modernity. Yet that promise was quickly belied when he conducted a major purge of prominent Saudi Arabian royals, senior ministers, and business chiefs, in an apparently ruthless bid to consolidate his grip on power. While Mr. bin Salman may continue to enjoy the trappings of global influence based on Riyadh’s vital energy links with oil-importing nations, and through his reciprocal cordial ties with U.S. President Donald Trump, it is doubtful whether the stiflingly autocratic Saudi governance structure can continue in its present form without being undermined by serious fault lines that are sure to emerge.

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