One week after Jamal Khashoggi disappeared at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, in search of truth and accountability, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee turned to a never-used provision within U.S. human rights law. In the ensuing weeks, Saudi Arabia has essentially admitted that they murdered Khashoggi. But the government’s story still doesn’t make sense, and the truth about Khashoggi’s murder remains in question.
President TrumpDonald TrumpStowaway found in landing gear of plane after flight from Guatemala to Miami Kushner looking to Middle East for investors in new firm: report GOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips MORE and his administration could help solve this mystery, and hold the perpetrators to account—if Trump takes the senators’ effort seriously. He should.
On Oct. 10, Foreign Relations Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her MORE (R-Tenn.) and Ranking Member Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezFive ways Senate could change Biden's spending plan Spending bill faces Senate scramble Republicans raise concerns over Biden's nominee for ambassador to Germany MORE (D-N.J.) were joined by nearly every member of the panel in writing a letter to President Trump that triggered a provision of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, a law created in response to the brutal murder of Russian tax accountant Sergei Magnitsky at the hands of Russian police which allows the U.S. government to impose sanctions on foreign individuals for “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”
The particular provision (see: section 1263(d)) requires that the president respond to the two senators within 120 days with a report that determines whether one or more foreign persons were involved in what was then known as the disappearance of Khashoggi, and state whether or not the president has imposed or will impose sanctions on them.
Now that the Saudi regime has confirmed his death and given an explanation that is neither credible nor exculpatory, we hope Trump will respond much more quickly than four months from now. But that will depend on how seriously he and his administration take the Magnitsky Act investigation. It is not as if they lack clear targets.
Given Saudi Arabia’s sprawling royal family and opaque decision-making process, application of the Act to the Saudi regime could be considered difficult. But Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is not normal, and the crown prince’s ruthless quest to smother independent journalism and consolidate power has actually created a clearer target for Magnitsky sanctions: the kingdom’s newly formed security apparatus—and, at its head, the crown prince himself.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented how Crown Prince Salman’s Saudi Arabia has detained journalists at an alarming rate, even by the kingdom’s already repressive standards. Eman Al Nafjan, a blogger and prominent advocate for ending the kingdom’s ban on women driving, was detained in May by authorities reporting to the State Security Presidency, and CPJ also learned that Marwan al-Mureisi, an established columnist who steered clear of politics, was detained by intelligence agents from his five-year-old son’s hospital bedside in Riyadh.
Their arrests, along with others peacefully expressing themselves, have a common thread: the Presidency of State Security. The creation of this body on July 20, 2017 consolidated all of the kingdom’s security and intelligence services under one roof and elevated its head, Abdulaziz bin Mohammed al-Howairini, to the level of minister while retaining his role as director of general intelligence. The move gutted the security and intelligence jurisdiction of the interior ministry and consolidated power over the Saudi security apparatus in the hands of King Salman Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Salman.
Understanding this move is critical for the White House and Congress as the Trump administration investigates culpability for Khashoggi’s death. A 15-member team, some of whom were linked to the security apparatus, arrived in Istanbul the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance and left the same day, according to The Guardian. Intelligence officials have alleged that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the operation, according to The New York Times, and Turkish media reports indicate that several of the squad were members of the Saudi Royal Guards.
Even absent confirmation of these reports, the administration must consider that under the new security structure there is a vanishingly small chance that such an operation, if accurately reported, could have originated from the within Saudi security or intelligence ranks without Crown Prince Salman’s approval. All signs point to anyone potentially involved reporting directly to the crown prince, or otherwise under the umbrella of the Presidency of State Security that he created in order to have direct control over all these services.
Yet even as truths emerge—and even though the Trump administration has interpreted executive powers under the the Magnitsky Act broadly—we should not expect concrete action.
President Trump has not yet levied sanctions against any individual for a human rights abuse committed in the Middle East, despite the-target rich environment. The situation is further complicated by President Trump and Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerKushner looking to Middle East for investors in new firm: report Watchdog finds no money has flowed out of agency tasked by Trump admin to fight pandemic Watchdog cites 13 Trump officials who violated Hatch Act before 2020 election MORE’s close relationship with Crown Prince Salman. Of course, Saudi Arabia is also a major customer for U.S. weapons, an important petroleum producer, and home of one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds. And the Magnitsky provision does not spell out consequences for President Trump simply ignoring the senators’ letter. When signing the provision into law, President Obama issued a signing memo that cited the constitutional separation of powers, “which limit the Congress's ability to dictate how the executive branch executes the law.”
For these reasons, a U.S. government investigation is a necessary but incomplete response to Kashoggi’s disappearance. The international community must also conduct an independent investigation, as called for by UN experts and Kashoggi’s family. And both investigations must look at not just who committed any crimes against Khashoggi, but anyone responsible for ordering, planning, and/or executing anything connected to the case.
But the U.S. has certain obligations under U.S. law and international human rights norms. Evidence is increasingly mounting against Saudi Arabia, and in the face of an apparent brutal act committed by a journalist across state lines, the Trump administration must investigate and act accordingly. The Magnitsky Act is a law tailor-made for this type of situation, and one that the administration has previously embraced and employed. Acknowledging how far up culpability may lie with Kashoggi’s disappearance may have sweeping ramifications, but economic and security ties should neither be a blank check nor a cudgel with which claimed allies can commit human rights violations with impunity.
If the creation of the State Security Presidency sharpened the Saudi state’s brutality to a spear point, it also created a prime target for Magnitsky sanctions. And in this new Saudi Arabia, ultimate responsibility for the state security apparatus goes all the way to the top.
Michael De Dora is Washington advocacy manager at the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent press freedom advocacy organization. Justin Shilad is CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa Researcher.