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5 years after Khashoggi's murder, advocates say the lack of justice is dangerous

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. Five years on, there has been little accountability — and human rights groups say that has implications for free expression around the world.
Ozan Kose
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AFP via Getty Images
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. Five years on, there has been little accountability — and human rights groups say that has implications for free expression around the world.

Updated October 2, 2023 at 1:51 PM ET

Five years ago, Jamal Khashoggi — a Saudi dissident who lived in Virginia and wrote for the Washington Post — walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents for his upcoming marriage. He never came out.

Khashoggi, 59, was dismembered, and his remains have never been found.

U.S. intelligence later determined that a team of 15 Saudi agents had flown to Istanbul to carry out a "capture or kill" operation approved by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).

Khashoggi's murder horrified journalists, activists and politicians across the West. But five years on, many say accountability — and justice — are still sorely lacking.

Prince Mohammed has not taken personal responsibility for the operation, which he characterized as a "mistake" in a Fox News interview last month. Only eight people have been sentenced for their role in the killing, with prospects slim for additional fair trials. And the U.S. is largely doing business as usual with Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, the Saudi government has escalated its crackdown on free expression and punishing dissent — like sentencing a retired teacher to death in July over his tweets criticizing corruption and human rights violations in the kingdom.

Human rights groups are warning that the lack of consequences for Khashoggi's murder doesn't just insult his memory, but also puts other people at risk.

The free speech group PEN America said in a statement Monday that the impunity in Khashoggi's case "has cast a shadow over writers who speak out against injustice worldwide."

"The international community has brushed aside concerns over Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's silencing of critical voices in favor of normalization," it added. "On the fifth anniversary of his murder, governments and institutions should reject business as usual with bin Salman's government — otherwise, targeting writers could become the new normal."

Consequences have been largely limited

Efforts to bring Khashoggi's killers to justice and hold its government to account have been largely unsuccessful.

Only some of the Saudi agents involved in Khashoggi's killing — who have not been named publicly — have been put on trial.

In 2020 a Saudi court sentenced five of them to 20-year-jail terms. They had originally been given the death penalty, which was overturned after Khashoggi's son, who lives in Saudi Arabia, announced that he forgave the defendants. Three others were sentenced to lesser terms.

Last spring a Turkish court transferred its trial in absentia of 26 individuals to Saudi Arabia, a move slammed by human rights groups. Human Rights Watch said at the time it "would end any possibility of justice" for Khashoggi and "reinforce Saudi authorities' apparent belief that they can get away with murder."

The Biden administration announced sanctions and visa bans on Saudi citizens over Khashoggi's killing in 2021, but didn't penalize Prince Mohammed directly. A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against the crown prince last year after the Biden administration recommended he be granted immunity, citing legal precedent.

Amnesty International Secretary General Agnès Callamard said in a statement that, five years on, "the path to justice for [Khashoggi's] killing remains fully blocked."

"An independent and impartial criminal investigation into the role played by high level officials is yet to take place and instead, Saudi authorities are continuing their relentless crackdown on freedom of speech with complete impunity," she added.

Human rights groups warn against business as usual

Amnesty International points out that instead of leading an investigation into Khashoggi's death, "the international community continues to roll out the red carpet for Saudi Arabia's leaders at any opportunity."

Biden, who as a presidential candidate had pledged to make Saudi Arabia a global "pariah," was roundly criticized for fist-bumping its leader during a 2022 trip to the Middle East (and greeted him even more warmly last month).

More than a dozen human rights groups released a joint statement last week accusing the Biden administration of helping aid the crown prince's rehabilitation on the world stage and asking it to "prioritize significant and genuine human rights improvements by the Saudi government."

That would mean urging Saudi authorities to do things like cease targeting journalists inside of the country, unconditionally release people detained for expressing peaceful views and end its "growing transnational repression practices."

"The crown prince's repressive practices and policies are a threat not only to people residing in Saudi Arabia, but to anyone who dares criticize him no matter where they reside, as illustrated by Jamal's brutal murder," they wrote.

Many U.S. companies are still doing business with Saudi Arabia, even those who distanced themselves from the kingdom immediately following Khashoggi's death. The PGA tour even announced plans this summer to merge with its Saudi-backed rival to create a global golf enterprise (though not without controversy).

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius told Morning Edition that it's understandable such an economic powerhouse would be gradually accepted back into the worlds of business and diplomacy. But he thinks Khashoggi's murder and martyrdom will live on.

"Yeah, MBS is back in the world and companies are doing business there," he said. "But there is a mark of shame for the kingdom that isn't going to go away."

How Saudi Arabia has and hasn't changed since 2018

Khashoggi, "in a sense, escaped being somebody who worked for the royal family, who traveled with senior royals, who worked with the Saudi ambassador to Washington and London," Ignatius said.

He remembers his friend and colleague as a passionate journalist with a twinkle in his eye who balanced his hopes for change in Saudi society with a growing suspicion of its new leader. He describes Khashoggi as "an example of the process of change that's happening in Saudi Arabia."

"He had a taste of freedom as a journalist. He wanted more," he said. "He encouraged the opening of his kingdom, the change of some of these traditional social rules. He wanted more."

It's undeniable that there have been major changes in Saudi Arabia in the last five years, Ignatius notes.

For example: The government lifted a ban on women driving months before Khashoggi's death in 2018; now women "mix freely in Saudi society with men," including at music festivals. It stripped the "religious police" of their privileges, which led to many women no longer wearing the hijab in public.

Saudi Arabia and Israel have hinted they are open to establishing formal relations, which Ignatius says is something he never thought he'd see in his lifetime.

"It would be wrong not to credit those changes," Ignatius said. "What bothers me is that those changes have been implemented essentially by force ... We should understand that this is a modernizing dictator. And there's always the danger that citizens of Saudi Arabia could be thrown into prison if they disagree with him."

Even as the Saudi government decided to allow women to drive and play sports in schools, for example, it imprisoned some of the activists who were advocating for those very changes, Ignatius said.

He said the "instruments of repression" that led to Khashoggi's death are very much still in place, even if they're not visible.

"This is as repressive, as potentially dictatorial a regime as it was five years ago," he said. "And that should concern everybody. It certainly would have shocked Jamal that even after this tragedy, there hasn't hasn't been change."

The broadcast interview was produced by Milton Guevara and Julie Depenbrock, and edited by Jan Johnson.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.