Prominent Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi disappeared last week in Istanbul and may have been murdered — and it’s looking increasingly likely that the highest levels of the Saudi government, who were the primary targets of his criticism, are behind it.
The 59-year-old veteran journalist and columnist for the Washington Post was last seen on October 2 walking into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. He was there to obtain a document verifying his divorce so that he could marry his Turkish fiancée.
But what happened next is a mystery.
Turkish officials have said they have “concrete” evidence that Khashoggi never left the building and was murdered there; some have even put forth gruesome theories of how his body may have been dismembered and smuggled out.
So far, though, Saudi officials have maintained that they had nothing to do with the incident. But as more and more evidence emerges, it’s unclear how much longer they can continue to deny involvement — and pressure is mounting.
On Wednesday, about 20 activists and journalists gathered on a tree-lined street in front of the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC, holding signs and banners and demanding answers on Khashoggi’s whereabouts.
Medea Benjamin, the organizer of the protest, said Khashoggi — who had lived in self-imposed exile in Virginia since last summer — was a friend of hers, and she was in shock. “We demand answers and accountability,” she told me. “There needs to be an end to the impunity the Saudi government has received from the United States for all too long.”
Another protester, Samia Harris, said that she was there because she believed everyone should have freedom of speech, and called on President Trump to stand up for human rights.
“It is not just this case. We cannot just smile at tyrants and thugs who are running other countries,” she told me. “We should all question what happened here, and also what happens in Egypt, and in many other places, where people are being kidnapped and we don’t know why.”
But it’s not just activists who are demanding answers.
The Washington Post has run story after story after story calling attention to the issue and refusing to let the disappearance of one of its own go. It published a letter by Khashoggi’s fiancée asking Trump directly to help “shed light” on the whereabouts of the man she loves. And the newspaper’s editorial board called on the Trump administration — or, if necessary, Congress — to hold the Saudis accountable and punish those responsible.
Congress has started paying attention. So, too, have prominent American and European investors involved in new Saudi economic initiatives.
Which means the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not going to be able to make this story go away anytime soon.
Members of Congress are demanding answers
Several US lawmakers have spoken out about the incident, saying that if the allegations are true, it would have a huge impact on the US’s strong — and lucrative — relationship with the wealthy Gulf monarchy.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told reporters on Wednesday that there would be “hell to pay” if Saudi Arabia killed Khashoggi. “I’ve never been more disturbed than I am right now,” Graham continued. “If this man was murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, that would cross every line of normality in the international community.”
And Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) tweeted his support for the journalist and said his disappearance was “personal.”
Jamal Khashoggi is a Virginia resident, so his disappearance is personal to me. President Trump needs to raise this case immediately with Saudi Arabia and Turkey and demand answers. We should be extending support from our federal agencies for a real investigation.
— Tim Kaine (@timkaine) October 9, 2018
On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of senators turned up the pressure on the Trump administration by requesting that the US impose sanctions on anyone who was responsible for the journalist’s disappearance.
“The recent disappearance of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi suggests that he could be a victim of a gross violation of internationally recognized human rights,” the letter reads.
The senators’ letter triggered something called the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the US to sanction individuals who have committed human rights abuses anywhere in the world. The Trump administration now has 120 days to look into the matter and decide.
Trump may still fail to hold the authorities who are responsible accountable, but the administration is now required to investigate the issue further.
The Khashoggi case is also affecting Saudi Arabia’s business ventures
The incident has had a broader effect on Saudi Arabia’s business ventures as well.
The monarchy is in the process of building a futuristic city called Neom — a $500 billion project — and three members of its advisory board, including former US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, announced they were suspending their participation in the project this week.
The New York Times also announced it was withdrawing its sponsorship of a major Saudi investment conference nicknamed “Davos in the Desert,” which is set to take place in Riyadh later this month.
“In light of the current situation related to the disappearance of the Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Turkey, we are no longer comfortable being associated with the event,” a Times spokesperson told CNN.
The editor-in-chief of the Economist, who was a scheduled speaker, and Huffington Post editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington have canceled their plans to attend as well.
But despite the fact that Saudi Arabia is likely behind the disappearance and murder of the prominent journalist, it’s unclear if the president will be willing to punish the country or respond in a substantive way.
Trump told reporters at the White House on Thursday that though he didn’t like the fact that Khashoggi had disappeared under mysterious circumstances, he didn’t want to risk losing a very lucrative arms deal with Saudi Arabia.
“This took place in Turkey, and to the best of our knowledge, Khashoggi is not a United States citizen, he’s a permanent resident,” the president said. “We don’t like it, even a little bit. But as to whether or not we should stop $110 billion from being spent in this country, knowing they [Saudi Arabia] have four or five alternatives, two very good alternatives, that would not be acceptable to me.”
But regardless of Trump’s apparent unwillingness to consider taking serious measures over the fate of one permanent US resident, one thing is clear: This issue is not going away. And Saudi Arabia would do well to take note.