Five years of impunity: how Saudi Arabia brushed aside the killing of Jamal Khashoggi

The brutal killing of the Washington Post columnist in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul shocked the world in 2018. Five years later, none of his assassins faced true accountability, and Saudi Arabia is back to the center of the world political stage. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) denounces this ongoing impunity and continues to pursue all avenues to achieve justice for the slain journalist.

It was a mistake, it was painful,” claimed Mohammed Bin Salman in a recent comment, referring to the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi on 2 October 2018. The Crown Prince had, in 2019, acknowledged his full responsibility for the murder of Khashoggi, but denied ordering it. A declassified US intelligence report suggests otherwise.

Despite the admissions, impunity prevails. Though Bin Salman insists that “anyone involved in it [the killing] is serving time,” media reports in 2021 revealed that at least three of the individuals convicted by Saudi courts were seen living in luxury villas in a government compound near Riyadh. As for the suspected mastermind of the operation, the infamous Saud al-Qahtani never even stood trial. In fact, after a four year disappearance, he resurfaced in a video on Twitter in June 2023, surrounded by supporters.

On the global stage, democratic leaders seemingly abandoned their earlier promises to hold Saudi Arabia accountable in favour of a realpolitik approach fuelled by global crises. Red carpet receptions in Paris, a fist bump with US President Joe Biden, and an official invitation to Buckingham palace – Mohammed Bin Salman’s “royal” treatment continued unperturbed, and not just with these Western leaders. In 2023 alone, the Crown Prince welcomed rivals equally known for repressing journalists in their own countries, including Iranian officials and the formerly banished Bashar al-Assad who made his comeback to the Arab League per invitation from Riyadh. 

In addition to mending political ties, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince also relied on a wide array of celebrity athletes and cultural figures to rebrand his image from global “pariah” to “visionary leader,” one who tried his best “to reform our system,” as he told American news channel Fox News. As for his response to accusations of sportswashing the practice of exploiting sports events to divert attention from human rights abuses the Crown Prince told Fox News he “doesn’t care.” Sure enough, Bin Salman did nothing to remove the obstructions that stifle press freedoms in the Kingdom. Twenty-four media professionals remain jailed in Saudi Arabia – one of the highest tallies in the world. Even when released, journalists often face travel bans for 10 years or more, as is the case of previously jailed blogger Raif Badawi.

“Saudi Arabia seems to have gotten away with the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, which is a terrifying prospect not only for the journalist’s loved ones but also for global press freedom and journalists’ safety worldwide. For five full years, world leaders have given the Crown Prince a pass as he and his government elude any accountability for this heinous crime. RSF denounces this shameful impunity, which only leaves the door open for further attacks on journalists. We will continue to fight for justice for Jamal in all jurisdictions until justice is served.”

Jonathan Dagher
Head of the Middle East Desk at RSF

Trials dismissed in multiple jurisdictions

Throughout these five years, Saudi Arabia successfully averted two major trials: one in Turkey, where the crime occurred, and another in the US, the country of legal permanent residence of Jamal Khashoggi, who held a US green card. 

In April 2022, Istanbul’s High Criminal Court halted a longstanding trial in absentia of 26 Saudi nationals said to have participated in the crime. The case was transferred to Saudi Arabia, where it was immediately closed on the grounds that Saudi courts had already convicted eight men in secretive trials held behind closed doors.

In a similar pattern, another lawsuit filed by Khashoggi’s fiancee Hatice Cengiz against the Crown Prince in a federal court in Washington DC was also dismissed. Mohammed Bin Salman’s sudden and surprising appointment as Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia in September 2022 prompted the Biden administration to grant him immunity in the US. The judge dismissed the lawsuit, “despite the Court’s uneasiness, then, with both the circumstances of Bin Salman’s appointment and the credible allegations of his involvement in Khashoggi’s murder,” wrote the judge in December 2022. “Jamal Khashoggi died again,” commented Cengiz at the time. 

In 2021, RSF filed a groundbreaking criminal complaint with the German Public Prosecutor General targeting the Saudi Crown Prince and other high-ranking Saudi officials responsible for crimes against humanity in their widespread and systematic persecution of journalists, including the murder of Khashoggi and arbitrary detention of 34 journalists.  Two and a half years on, the Public Prosecutor has unfortunately yet to pursue the case.

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