Just beyond the metal-framed double doors of the Saudi Embassy in Washington, protesters gathered Wednesday to stand vigil for Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who has not been heard from since he disappeared inside the Saudi Consulate in Turkey last week.
They offered memories of the columnist and prayers for his family and fiancee. They demanded answers from the Saudi government — and action from the Trump administration.
“When the Saudis commit acts of violence, it has always been with a wink and a nod from the United States,” said Medea Benjamin, co-director of Code Pink, which organized Wednesday’s protest. “This did not start with Donald Trump. They have been emboldened for years, and it has been a bipartisan problem.”
Earlier, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) and several prominent activists joined a growing chorus of Americans calling on the Trump administration to lead an independent probe into Khashoggi’s sudden disappearance.
At a news conference in front of The Washington Post, Connolly said President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo must demand answers from the Saudi government.and make it “crystal clear” that the United States will not stand for the killing of journalists.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said senior White House officials, including Pompeo, had contacted Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, on Tuesday and asked for more information about what happened on Oct. 2, the last day Khashoggi was seen.
“If the Saudis are complicit in this alleged crime, they’re the wrong party to investigate,” Connolly said.
Khashoggi, a prominent journalist and critic of the Saudi government, had gone to the Saudi Consulate that day to finalize papers for his upcoming wedding. Turkish officials say Khashoggi was killed inside.
The Saudi government has denied involvement, insisting Khashoggi left the consulate alive and well.
“If they did this, they will be held accountable, and there will be penalties,” Connolly said. “So far, [the Trump administration’s] responses have been awfully anemic and not acceptable. We need a robust, strong, fortified U.S. position that makes it crystal clear that this is not acceptable behavior and those responsible for it will be held to account, no matter how high up it may go.”
At the White House on Wednesday, Trump told reporters it was a “bad situation” and added, “We can’t let this happen to reporters, to anybody. . . . We’ll have to find out who did it.”
Khashoggi, a contributor to The Washington Post’s Global Opinions section, fled to the United States more than a year ago after he was banned from tweeting and his writings were censored in Saudi Arabia, friends said. He lived in a sort of self-imposed exile in Northern Virginia near Tysons, away from friends and family.
Connolly, who represents the district where Khashoggi lived, said the journalist had been granted asylum in the United States and was under “American protection.”
Turkish investigators suspect a squad of 15 men from Saudi Arabia was involved in the abduction or killing of Khashoggi, and they have begun to piece together a timeline.
If the allegations against the Saudi government are proved true, Connolly said, “the Saudis will have to account for themselves, and they’re going to pay a high price, I hope, for committing violence against an innocent who trusted a consulate was a safe haven in which to do business — not an abattoir.”
Connolly said he was not privy to information regarding any possible threats against Khashoggi that had been intercepted by U.S. intelligence. But he recently learned that Khashoggi had visited the Saudi Consulate days before his disappearance and “felt secure” enough to return.
“That was the setup,” he said. “If [the United States] had intelligence, it should have been shared. That was a life-threatening threat.”
Standing beneath the golden sabers and green trees of the Saudi coat of arms, protesters held photographs of Khashoggi and signs denouncing the monarchy. One man, dressed in a long white thobe, wore the face of bin Salman over his own. His hands, held up for effect, were dripping fake blood.
Khaled Saffuri, a close friend of Khashoggi for more than two decades and co-founder of the Islamic Free Market Institute, said a senior adviser to the crown prince contacted Khashoggi in June and offered the journalist safe passage home should he choose to return. Saffuri said Khashoggi told him he wouldn’t go.
“When he was finished telling me about it, I said, ‘Would you go?’ And you know what he told me?” Saffuri said. “He said, ‘Are you kidding me? I don’t trust them for one minute.’ ”
Ali al-Ahmed, a prominent Saudi analyst and critic, said the United States should hold the crown prince personally responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance.
He asked that the Trump administration ban Mohammed and a group of 15 men accused in Khashoggi’s disappearance from entering the United States.
“Mohammed bin Salman is the mad king of Saudi Arabia, and Jamal Khashoggi is not his first or his last victim,” al-Ahmed told a crowd of more than three dozen spectators and journalists. “Tell him he is not welcome here.”
Friends and colleagues recounted Khashoggi’s courage, approachability and desire to see his home country become more free and transparent. They called him conservative in his beliefs and measured in his writing. Several spoke of his support for the monarchy and said he always considered himself more of an adviser than a dissident.
“He was so mild,” said Samia Harris, an Egyptian human rights activist and founder of Prince William Academy in Virginia. “It makes the rest of us — activists and journalists who have stronger beliefs — think, ‘If he lost his life, what’s going to happen to me?’ ”
Asma Yousef, 42, and her nephew, Abdulaziz Gebril, 26, said they have had members of their family vanish in the same fashion as Khashoggi.
“It’s forcing all of us who have had someone we know disappeared to relive that past trauma, that heartbreak,” said Yousef, a Libyan American mother of three who befriended Khashoggi at a mosque in Northern Virginia.
“I wanted the people inside (the Saudi Embassy) to know that Jamal Khashoggi had friends in the United States who support him,” she said. “And I felt we owe it to those who would like to be here today but are unable to because they’re afraid. Because look what happened to Jamal.”