Saudi state-run media reported on September 7 that the Riyadh Criminal Court jailed eight people for their purported role in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Five received 20-year sentences; one was handed a ten-year sentence; and two received seven-year sentences. This final verdict came after Khashoggi’s son pardoned five of the convicted, saving them from the death penalty.
“The verdict is fair and deterrent to any criminal,” said Motasem Khashoggi, who is the lawyer for Khashoggi’s family. “We as a family opted for applying (Islamic) Sharia laws since the beginning and there is no court in the world that applies Sharia rules like in Saudi Arabia.”
The leadership in Riyadh seeks to move past the Khashoggi saga, especially with the approaching US presidential election.
The leadership in Riyadh seeks to move past the Khashoggi saga, especially with the approaching US presidential election and the G20 summit that Saudi Arabia will host in November. The Saudi government’s objective is to convince the US and other countries that the Saudi system has provided accountability for the gruesome murder that outraged so many worldwide. Yet this verdict from the Riyadh Criminal Court will not achieve that goal.
Justice Hasn’t Been Served
The closed trial was untransparent and not even close to complying with international standards of fairness. Independent media was not allowed to attend. The public still does not know any of the defendants’ names. Despite the legal proceedings lasting for more than a year, what happened to Khashoggi’s body remains unknown.
Presumably the eight who received these sentences were complicit in the murder. Yet there are others who had roles in the killing who are still free; for example, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MbS) media advisor, Saud Al-Qahtani. In 2018, the US Treasury targeted Al-Qahtani with sanctions based on his alleged role in playing a “part of the planning and execution of the operation” that led to Khashoggi’s murder. The Saudi authorities have not only failed to charge him with any crime, but he is still working for the Saudi government.
In the words of Agnes Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, this verdict was “one more act today in this parody of justice.” Human Rights Watch’s Adam Coogle said that the court ruling “does not hide the fact that the Saudi legal process has shielded top officials from any and all scrutiny.” A spokesperson for Germany’s Foreign Ministry stated that the trial leaves questions which need to be answered.
The court ruling “does not hide the fact that the Saudi legal process has shielded top officials from any and all scrutiny.”
Ultimately, no justice has been served. This verdict was about Saudi Arabia’s PR efforts, not any genuine desire to reveal the truth about Khashoggi’s murder nor to hold anyone in the kingdom accountable for it. This brings us to the Trump factor and the grander question of US leadership.
The Role of US Leadership
The Khashoggi affair has been a major burden and headache for the Trump administration. With the White House focused on US arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against the Islamic Republic of Iran, the administration wants to see to it that Washington and Riyadh can work together without this murder case undermining bilateral cooperation.
As argued by Khalil Jahshan, the Executive Director of the Arab Center Washington DC, the speed at which these legal proceedings wrapped up was, at least in part, an outcome of pressure coming from the Trump administration. With the US presidential election in November, those in Trump’s circle likely urged the Saudi leadership to take steps to ensure that the verdict be reached quickly to create an illusion of accountability so that business as usual can continue in US-Saudi relations. Like MbS, Trump would like to move past this file as soon as possible.
Since October 2018, Trump has bent over backwards to protect MbS from accountability. After Khashoggi’s murder, “I saved his a–,” was how President Trump put it, according to Bob Woodward. “I was able to get Congress to leave [MbS] alone. I was able to get them to stop.” Yet the Saudi Crown Prince understands that he may not have a US president willing to protect him from lawmakers who will continue to press him next year because no one in Washington is going to forget about Khashoggi.
On September 11, Congressman Adam Schiff, who serves as the Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, accused Trump of “taking self-interested and implausible denials [about MbS’ role in Khashoggi’s killing] at face value.” Schiff also asserted that “neither Democrats nor Republicans in Congress are going to stop insisting on an accounting and accountability for his murder—or stop demanding that the Director of National Intelligence make public its assessment of Saudi officials’ culpability for the killing.”
Joe Biden declared last year, “Khashoggi was in fact murdered and dismembered, and I believe at the order of [the] Crown Prince.”
As former Vice President Joe Biden declared last year at a debate with his primary opponents, “Khashoggi was in fact murdered and dismembered, and I believe at the order of [the] Crown Prince.” Biden stated he would end the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, a country where he said there is “little social redeeming value in the present government.”
As many experts contend, the Trump administration has given MbS the sense that he can get away with many actions that a Saudi leader would have calculated as too risky in the pre-Trump era. This is of course not limited to the Khashoggi murder, but also other episodes including the blockade of Qatar, the kidnapping of Lebanon’s Prime Minister in 2017, and Riyadh’s diplomatic action against Canada in 2018.
If Biden enters the Oval Office in January, perhaps one of his major challenges in the Middle East will pertain to US-Saudi relations and his administration’s efforts to establish redlines for MbS, which Trump never did. It is not clear what steps Biden would take to deter the Saudi Crown Prince from future actions like the Khashoggi killing. Nonetheless, the leadership in Riyadh is nervous that a new US administration would freeze arms sales, or threaten to do so, as a means of leverage. This would have huge ramifications for Saudi foreign policy, especially with the kingdom still at war with Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Doubtless, if Trump wins a second term, MbS will have a huge sigh of relief.