It’s been three months and one day since journalist Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and was killed by a team of 15 of his fellow countrymen, allegedly at the behest of his country’s ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
And after months of denials — many of them taking a darkly farcical turn — the kingdom on Thursday put 11 men on trial for Khashoggi’s murder, with five of those men facing the death penalty. It’s unknown whether any or some of these men were among the 15 who flew into Turkey to kill the journalist.
Thursday’s procedures, which were closed to the public as is customary in the Saudi courts, constituted only the initial hearing, with the unnamed defendants asking for a copy of the indictments and time to respond.
The crown prince, who is known by his initials, MBS, has maintained that he had nothing to do with the murder of Khashoggi, a dissident journalist who saw through the ruler’s attempts to cast himself as a progressive leader, writing pieces for The Washington Post that laid bare those claims for the clumsy PR that they were.
The official Saudi line is that the men were part of a “rogue operation” — somehow managing to board two private jets, fly to Turkey, commandeer the consulate, kill Khashoggi, dispose of his body, and fly back without the country’s leadership knowing anything about it.
This, in a Gulf Arab state where the movement and expression of citizens is strictly policed, and criticism of the state is punished with swift brutality.
There is little, then, that we can expect from the trial of the men who allegedly killed Khashoggi, human rights advocates say.
“The whole trial is widely seen as a sham trial,” said Philippe Nassif, Middle East and North Africa advocacy director for Amnesty International. Nassif added that it’s almost certain that someone within the crown prince’s circle, if not the crown prince himself, certainly knows who is responsible for Khashoggi’s murder.
“What a lot of folks in the human rights space are trying to grapple with is who are the people who are being accused — why them, specifically — and are some of them completely oblivious and innocent? That’s he un-discussed issue here … We have to look at how far removed these guys are from the case, if not entirely,” Nassif told ThinkProgress.
Rights organizations, including Amnesty International, have called for an independent international investigation.
“Politically, the writing is on the wall as to what the intentions are here,” Nassif said.
The Saudi authorities have accused Turkey of failing to provide them with evidence for the trial, and Nassif said that Turkey, which has its own human rights issues and political tensions with Saudi Arabia, might not be providing entirely reliable information on the case.
Still, Turkey has provided quite a bit of evidence: It released security footage of Khashoggi entering the consulate, never coming out. It provided footage of the Saudi team that landed in Istanbul (one of them an autopsy expert, carrying a bone saw), as well as audio of what is believed to be Khashoggi’s horrific final moments as he tried to fight off his attackers. (CIA Director Gina Haspel heard the audio before issuing a damning report last month saying that MBS almost certainly ordered the hit on Khashoggi).
Turkey also provided evidence showing that the consulate’s Turkish staff had been told to go home on the day of Khashoggi’s appointment there.
In its own way, Saudi Arabia has been responding to the blow it dealt to itself by ordering Khashoggi’s murder. In addition to this trial, it also instituted an internal political shakeup, if only a cosmetic one — none of the ministries headed by MBS are touched, and his power remains unchallenged.
“There’s been a pattern of behavior that the Saudis are guilty of that’s been going for a long time, that’s been going on since before Khashoggi,” said Nassif, adding that it’s unlikely at this point that MBS will change his ways.
Indeed, MBS tends to double down on crackdowns, and there is no appetite within the Trump administration to hold the Saudis accountable; the president has steadfastly supported MBS, echoing Riyadh’s party line throughout.
But the Senate issued a strong rebuke to Saudi Arabia last month, when it passed a resolution holding MBS accountable for Khashoggi’s killing, as well as another calling for ending U.S. military support to Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen, which has caused tens of thousands of civilian deaths and starvation among children. The resolutions, though largely symbolic, are a sign that things could change.
Nassif hopes The Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act of 2018, which will need to be reintroduced in the new 116th Congress, will have the kind of teeth that might stop MBS’s “adventurism” in the Middle East.
“It is the best legislative vehicle left to punish Saudi Arabia, the weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, to bring justice for Khashoggi — it slaps sanctions on the kingdom until they provide complete transparency and allow an investigation to take place … and it has a lot of support, both from Republicans and Democrats,” he said.
“This is a big fight that the United States really needs to get involved in, when it comes to getting justice for Khashoggi and others who have suffered similar fates,” Nassif added.