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World Press Freedom Day: Still no justice for Jamal Khashoggi

US lawmakers call on Donald Trump to release intelligence community's findings on who ordered murder - as directed by law
US president's officials refuse to "comply with the law, and it is our responsibility to hold them fully accountable," Congresswoman Ilhan Omar says (AFP/File photo)
By in
Washington

Sunday marks the second World Press Freedom Day since Saudi government agents murdered Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

Last year alone, Saudi Arabia jailed 26 journalists, and media professionals continue to face harassment and threats across the globe. But Khashoggi's murder captured the world's attention like no other attack on the press. 

The slaying and dismembering the US-based journalist at a diplomatic post in a Nato-allied country was not only gruesome, it was horrifying in its brazenness. 

For weeks and months, the killing captured headlines and fuelled outrage in Washington against Riyadh and Donald Trump. The US president remained a loyal defender of the kingdom's rulers, shielding them from the fallout that followed the assassination. 

This year, however, the world is in turmoil on World Press Freedom Day, and that fateful day of 2 October 2018 when Khashoggi was murdered may seem like a lifetime ago. With the spread of the coronavirus, the US election season and impending global economic disaster, the news cycle has largely moved on from the Khashoggi story. Still, that story has not concluded.

The slain journalist's remains are still missing, and top Saudi officials have yet to be held accountable for the murder. In Washington, Trump remains in open defiance of Congress by refusing to release the US intelligence community's findings on who ordered the assassination - an assessment that advocates and legal scholars say is crucial for delivering justice.

"It's been a year and a half since the murder of Virginia resident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi," US Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, told Middle East Eye in an email on Saturday. 

"The Trump Administration’s failure to hold the Saudi regime accountable for this and countless other human rights abuses is reprehensible."

'Unacceptable'

Late last year, Trump signed into law a military budget that required the administration's intelligence chief to produce a declassified report that identifies Saudi officials involved in the "directing, ordering, or tampering of evidence in the killing of Khashoggi" within 30 days. 

World Press Freedom Day 2020 marks 135 days since the passage of that law. To date, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has turned over only a confidential document accompanied by a single declassified page saying that the information must remain secret to protect "sources and methods".

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Kaine called the ODNI's refusal to comply with the congressional request "unacceptable". 

"Americans deserve a president who will stand for human rights rather than bow to dictators," he said. 

It was not the first time Trump has refused to answer US legislators' calls to ensure accountability for the murder. Last February, the US administration ignored a congressionally mandated deadline under the Global Magnitsky Act to turn over findings on who ordered the assassination.

"We still do not have accountability for the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi," Congresswoman Ilhan Omar told MEE this week.

"The Administration is required by law to make public what the US government knows regarding who in the Saudi government is responsible for the killing and its cover up. 

"Now they are refusing to comply with the law, and it is our responsibility to hold them fully accountable."

Americans deserve a president who will stand for human rights rather than bow to dictators

- US Senator Tim Kaine

Khashoggi was a former Saudi insider who worked for most of his career at state-aligned media outlets. In his later years, he began writing for the Washington Post and became a vocal critic of the country's de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The slain journalist also wrote columns for Middle East Eye.

Late in 2018, it was widely reported by US media outlets that the CIA concluded that the crown prince, known as MBS, was behind the assassination - an assessment that was backed by every single US senator in December of that year. 

A long way to justice

The assassination coincided with the ramping up of a repression campaign against dissidents, journalists, women's rights advocates and perceived foes of the crown prince. 

These abuses along with the prolonged Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has devastated the already impoverished country and turned it into the largest humanitarian crisis on the planet, has left MBS with few friends in Washington. 

Still, Trump has refused to back down in his support for Riyadh. In fact, as recently as last month the US president referred to MBS as "my friend" in a Twitter post.

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Agnes Callamard, UN rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, has been calling on Washington to "unlock the secrecy" around the murder, stressing that the information in the hands of US intelligence agencies is crucial for ensuring justice.

In her own report last year, Callamard found that Khashoggi's death was a crime for which the state of Saudi Arabia was responsible. After initially denying that the killing took place, Riyadh has maintained that the assassination was the result of an unauthorised operation.

Last December, Saudi Arabia sentenced five people to death for their involvement in the murder in a move that was dismissed as a show, rather than genuine accountability, by critics of the kingdom. The trial exonerated top MBS aide Saud al-Qahtani, who is believed to have orchestrated the murder.

The Saudi embassy in Washington did not return MEE's request for comment. 

World Press Freedom Day returns this year, while justice for Khashoggi remains elusive.

Callamard, who maintains that the US administration has a crucial role to play in delivering accountability, says the road to justice in such cases is often a long journey.

"Continuing to speak about it, insisting that the attempt by Saudi Arabia to buy itself a new reputation is not working, reminding the world of the fact that Saudi Arabia is now one of the largest imprisoners of journalists, reminding the world that young women activists are still in prison because they wanted to drive - that too is a part of forcing the issue of accountability," Callamard told MEE in December.