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US must do more if justice is to prevail for slain journalist

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The United States has a responsibility under international human rights law to cooperate fully in the investigation of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and should publicly release as much information as possible that could shed light on the brutal slaying at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year.

This is one of the main conclusions of a report released this week by the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard, following a months-long human rights investigation that aims to provide a clear path to justice and accountability for Khashoggi’s murder amid foot-dragging by the United States and the international community more broadly.

Nine months after the Washington Post columnist was kidnapped, slain and dismembered, no one has been brought to justice. The primary challenge to securing justice in Washington for Khashoggi’s murder has been the Trump administration, as President Trump and his advisors have persistently engaged in secrecy and obfuscation, and failed to publicly hold Saudi Arabia accountable.

Immediately following Khashoggi’s murder on Oct. 2, members in both chambers of Congress triggered a provision of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act requiring the Trump administration to provide them, within 120 days, a report detailing who the administration determined was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder, and whether the administration would impose sanctions. The administration failed to reply by the deadline, as it was legally obligated to, although officials sought to assuage congressional concerns by announcing sanctions on 17 individuals.

But the list did not include Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who was implicated by both the arrangement of the Saudi intelligence apparatus, and a U.S. intelligence assessment. In fact, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly downplayed the reported U.S. intelligence assessment. The next day, the Senate voted unanimously to hold the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia accountable. Yet President Trump continues to oppose sanctions against the de facto leader, and even recently bypassed Congress to push through an arms deal with Saudi Arabia.

Callamard’s report confirms the conclusions of the intelligence assessment, and recommends that targeted sanctions be imposed on Salman until evidence that he does not bear responsibility is produced. It also calls for the U.S. to provide a determination under the Magnitsky Act as to the responsibility of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Both Republican and Democratic members of Congress criticized the Trump administration for ignoring the Magnitsky reporting requirement, and this report provides another opportunity for them to try to compel compliance.

Indeed, the special rapporteur’s report should serve as a wake-up call to Congress, which is tasked with holding both the Trump administration and the Saudi regime accountable for their failures.

What should Congress do?

First, it must ensure maximum transparency. Congress should pass legislation to compel the administration to release to the public all files related to what the intelligence community knew about Saudi plans to harm Khashoggi prior to his death, and what the intelligence community has learned about who initiated, planned, directed and carried out the murder.

Congress should then ensure any individuals who were involved in Khashoggi’s murder face economic and visa sanctions, including the Crown Prince, unless his lack of responsibility is confirmed.

One potential source for a roadmap: the Saudi Arabia Human Rights and Accountability Act of 2019. The bill, introduced by Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) on the six-month anniversary of Khashoggi’s murder, requires the director of National Intelligence to provide Congress a list of individuals determined to be responsible for the crime. Those listed would be denied entry to the United States.

The bill also includes a sanctions off-ramp. If Saudi Arabia meets several key human rights conditions—including the release of unjustly detained journalists, and full cooperation with international investigations into Khashoggi’s murder—the visa bans could be lifted.

In respect for the gravity of this crime, members of Congress should take a closer look at Malinowski’s bill and consider whether it is worth their support, or whether it provides a source of inspiration for a fresh approach. Key to the success of any legislation will be bipartisan support.

Although necessary, legislation is only one part of the solution. Callamard’s report calls on Congress to hold hearings to determine responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder and demand access to underlying classified materials. Intelligence is essential to determining the extent to which the U.S. knew about threats to Khashoggi prior to his death, and whether it had a duty to warn. Callamard was unable to make this determination due to lack of information. Freedom of Information Act requests by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Knight First Amendment Center have resulted in a lawsuit to compel provision of relevant documents. Congress should use hearings to continue to push on this issue.

A House subcommittee recently held a hearing on the dangers of human rights reporting featuring Khashoggi’s fiancée as a witness. The House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee should go further in exploring not just the Khashoggi murder, but also Saudi Arabia’s systematic persecution of journalists and dissidents, and the full range of possible U.S. government responses to ensure accountability for Khashoggi’s murder and help prevent something similar from ever happening again.

Inaction will only serve to embolden perpetrators. The Saudi regime continues to detain journalists and restrict freedom of expression with impunity. It will continue to do so as long as the U.S. government allows it to—and other governments will take note. The U.S. must set a standard for global leadership on human rights and accountability for murdered journalists. If the Trump administration won’t take up the challenge, members of Congress must act. Journalists around the world are depending on them.

Michael De Dora is Washington Advocacy Manager and Courtney C. Radsch is Director of Advocacy at the Committee to Protect Journalists. 

Tags Donald Trump Magnitsky Act Mike Pompeo Saudi Arabian human rights Tom Malinowski

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