Will there ever be justice for Jamal Khashoggi?
Having now passed 125 days since the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi hit squad in that country’s consulate in Istanbul, the question remains: will there ever be justice for Jamal Khashoggi?
Here it is important to be clear that when we talk about justice, we are not talking about only one thing. Legally, justice would mean that Jamal’s killers would be arrested, charged, tried, and sentenced according to the evidence of their guilt. Politically, however, justice for Jamal has far broader connotations.
Both definitions of justice, in this case, seem difficult to achieve. The killing was a crime committed in Turkey, and subject to Turkish jurisdiction; despite the popular misconception that diplomatic missions constitute foreign soil. The suspects in this crime are now in Saudi Arabia, and some have reportedly been arrested by Saudi authorities and purportedly are being prosecuted and tried. Turkey has issued arrest warrants for them (and others) and requested their extradition, but Saudi Arabia insists on keeping them in the country and presiding over their trial.
Yet, there is no serious legal ambiguity that can justify Saudi Arabia’s refusal to extradite those whom Turkish investigators have identified as culpable in a murder committed on Turkish soil. The Saudis’ determination to try the case themselves has caused international suspicion that the kingdom’s main concern is to cover up the facts and protect the high-ranking conspirators who are behind the killing.
While there has been some suggestion that the United Nations should convene a special international criminal tribunal to try the suspects, this is implausible for a multitude of reasons. First, neither the International Criminal Court nor the International Court of Justice (ICJ) presides over such matters.
Second, even if there were an international judicial body created to hear criminal cases about which there was a jurisdictional dispute, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi would not be such a case; Turkish jurisdiction is irrefutable.
And finally, because Turkey has clear legal authority to try this case, transferring the venue to any hypothetical international jurisdiction would undoubtedly be rejected by the Turkish government. It is conceivable that Turkey could appeal to the ICJ simply to resolve the jurisdictional dispute with Saudi Arabia; except that Saudi Arabia has not explicitly disputed Turkey’s jurisdiction over the case; the Saudi regime has simply stated, “we do not extradite our citizens.”
Legal justice for Jamal Khashoggi would mean the extradition to Turkey of all suspects in his killing, where they would be tried and sentenced according to the available evidence.
Strictly speaking, legal justice for Jamal Khashoggi would mean the extradition to Turkey of all suspects in his killing, where they would be tried and sentenced according to the available evidence. This appears unlikely to happen.
The issue of political justice for Jamal Khashoggi is far more difficult to quantify. The general feeling is that it should involve severe consequences for Saudi Arabia. The scope of these consequences runs from public condemnation to suspension of trade ties; to economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation; to the forced removal of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from the government and his prosecution for murder.
Again, the plausibility of almost any of these options is very low. Even Turkey, where the crime was committed, and whose extradition request the Saudis rejected, has not cut diplomatic ties with the Saudis.
The American president has affirmed his administration’s alliance with Saudi Arabia, and outrage over the murder is conspicuous by its absence, except on the Democratic side of the aisle in Congress where the outrage is palpably opportunistic and largely performed to score partisan political points.
Turkey is the world’s top jailer of journalists, and the United States has refused Turkish extradition requests in recent years over concern about political repression and alleged extrajudicial killings.
Add to this that there is also a conflict between the desire for political justice and legal justice insofar as there is very little incentive to fight for Turkey’s right to try the suspects in the Khashoggi killing, as Turkey itself has been engaged in a severe crackdown on dissidents and journalists for several years, particularly since a failed coup attempt in July 2016. Turkey is the world’s top jailer of journalists, and the United States has refused Turkish extradition requests in recent years over concern about political repression and alleged extrajudicial killings. Thus, even if Turkey has undeniable legal authority to try the Khashoggi suspects; it is very difficult for any nation that cares about justice to advocate extradition to Turkey.
What we are left with, then, is a smouldering sense of unfairness, an anger that powerful autocrats can literally get away with murder because of their money and strategic alliances. And this is precisely what Jamal Khashoggi felt. These feelings are exactly what inspired him to call for democracy and to speak out against the Saudi regime. By murdering him, the Saudi government has exponentially amplified his criticisms and made the world pay attention.
In a very real way, when the international community rallied to protect Rahaf Al-Qunun, and the moment she landed safely in Canada as a free woman, that constituted a measure of justice for Jamal Khashoggi.
Ultimately, justice for Jamal Khashoggi will not be achieved through the trial of his killers (wherever that may take place, if at all), nor through symbolic punitive actions in response to his murder; rather, justice will come in the form of change in Saudi Arabia, and the broader Arab world, achieved through continuous diligence and advocacy for civil liberties, human rights, and the rule of law—not someday, but every day.