Editorial Board

Since the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the cruelty of Saudi Arabia’s ruler has only grown

(Ann Kiernan for The Washington Post)

IT HAS been two years since Jamal Khashoggi, a renowned Saudi journalist who contributed columns to The Post, was murdered and butchered inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. During all that time, two facts have remained unchanged: There has been no justice for those who ordered and orchestrated his killing; and Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, has sustained the brutal repression that has made his regime the cruelest and most criminal in the country’s modern history.

Though the international backlash that followed Khashoggi’s killing made him a pariah, the crown prince did not alter his behavior. At the height of the blowback in October 2018, according to a lawsuit filed in August, MBS, as he is often called, dispatched another hit team to Canada in an abortive attempt to kill an exiled former intelligence official, Saad Aljabri. Since March of this year, the regime arrested two of Mr. Aljabri’s children and one of his brothers, and is holding them as de facto hostages in an attempt to force his return to the kingdom.

MBS has continued to lock up princes, businessmen and activists he considers threatening, usually without bothering to bring charges against them. None of the more than two dozen women’s rights activists who have been arrested since 2018 have been fully freed; they remain in prison or in home detention, without ever having been convicted of a crime. The senior MBS aide who orchestrated the Khashoggi killing and the arrest and torture of the women, Saud al-Qahtani, has never been punished. Nor has MBS himself accepted responsibility for ordering those crimes, even though the CIA and a U.N. investigation both concluded he was culpable.

The crown prince’s tyrannical conduct is what drove Khashoggi, at the age of 58, into exile in the United States after a career spent working as a journalist for mainstream Saudi newspapers and as a spokesman in the Saudi embassies in London and Washington. He did not see himself as a political dissident, but as advocate of peaceful reforms inside the system, including free speech and rights for women. He welcomed the social liberalizations MBS introduced, such as opening cinemas and allowing women to drive, but questioned why the very people who had advocated for them were being persecuted. Why, he asked in one Post column, must Saudis “choose between movie theaters and our rights as citizens to speak out, whether in support of or critical of our government’s actions?”

“We are being asked to abandon any hope of political freedom, and to keep quiet about arrests and travel bans that impact not only the critics but also their families,” he wrote. “We are expected to vigorously applaud social reforms and heap praise on the crown prince while avoiding any reference to the pioneering Saudis who dared to address these issues decades ago.”

The crown prince could have given credibility to his modernization initiative, “Saudi Vision 2030,” by embracing writers like Khashoggi and activists like the imprisoned Loujain al-Hathloul, who demanded women’s right to drive. Instead, he has pushed away the foreign investors his program depends on with his reckless behavior and shocking savagery. His recent attempts to brush up his image with token gestures have been pathetically weak.

Last month, for example, the regime announced the sentencing of eight low-level operatives to prison terms of seven to 20 years for Khashoggi’s murder. It was, as U.N. investigator Agnes Callamard put it, a “parody of justice”; the trial was held in secret, and those convicted were not even named. To this day, Saudi authorities have not explained what happened to Khashoggi’s remains after he was carved up with a bone saw, or provided them to his family.

The crown prince is nevertheless hoping that he will be rehabilitated by world leaders participating in a Group of 20 summit meeting currently scheduled for Riyadh in November. Though the continuing covid-19 pandemic has forced the Saudis to hold a virtual summit, they will still be the hosts, allowing MBS to pose as a world leader in good standing alongside Britain’s Boris Johnson, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Canada’s Justin Trudeau, among others. That’s not to mention President Trump, who excused MBS’s crime against Khashoggi weeks after it occurred, then bragged to The Post’s Bob Woodward that he had “saved his ass.”

If the G-20 meeting goes forward, even online, it ought to be known as the Impunity Summit. Its only meaningful result will be to prompt MBS to conclude he is free to murder other journalists and torture more women’s rights activists without consequence. Democratic leaders have been talking about the need to shore up and defend liberal values that are under assault from China, Russia and other autocracies. An excellent way to start would be to condition their participation in the G-20 summit on MBS’s release of political prisoners and full acceptance of responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder.

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