The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden gave Mohammed bin Salman a pass. Now his victims are piling up.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Nov. 20, 2019.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Nov. 20, 2019. (Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy Of Saud/Via Reuters)
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WHEN PRESIDENT BIDEN chose in February not to hold Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman accountable for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi despite a CIA conclusion that he approved the operation, we were among those who warned that the result would be more victims. Sadly, that has proved true. Before Mr. Biden’s decision, the Saudi regime released several political prisoners, including two U.S. citizens and a prominent women’s rights activist. Since March, it has sentenced at least three more activists to lengthy prison terms and opened investigations of others. “Repression of dissidents, human rights activists, and independent critics,” concluded a recent report by Human Rights Watch, “remains at full force.”

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One of those sentenced was Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan, a 37-year-old aid worker and son of a U.S. citizen, who was arrested and tortured in 2018 after a Saudi spy operation at Twitter identified him as the author of anonymous tweets criticizing the regime. In late February, Mr. Sadhan told his family in a phone call that he would soon be released. Instead, following Mr. Biden’s decision, he was hauled into court on April 5 and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Such stories are particularly disturbing in light of new revelations about the Khashoggi case. Michael Isikoff, the chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News, reports in a new podcast that the team of Saudi operatives sent to ambush Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018, made a side trip to Cairo, where they picked up the narcotics used in the killing. That implicates the regime of Abdel Fatah al-Sissi in the plot against Khashoggi, who contributed columns to The Post. But Mr. Sissi, too, has been held harmless by Mr. Biden, even though he promised “no more blank checks” for the dictator during his presidential campaign.

The Egyptian connection came to light in a closed 2019 trial held in Riyadh for some of those involved in the killing; notes taken by Turkish diplomats allowed to observe the proceedings were subsequently filed in an Istanbul court. According to Mr. Isikoff, they show that the decision to kill Khashoggi was initiated by Maher Mutreb, a bodyguard to Mohammed bin Salman, who after reviewing the layout of the Saudi Consulate concluded that it would not be possible to capture and extract the journalist alive. Instead, Khashoggi was drugged and his body was dismembered with a bone saw.

Mr. Mutreb and Salah Tubaigy, the doctor who administered the lethal dose of drugs to Khashoggi, were among those put on trial. Five people were eventually sentenced to death, but their penalties were later commuted to 20 years, and Mr. Isikoff cites Saudi sources as saying the convicts are living in a luxury compound near Riyadh, where Mr. Tubaigy has been sighted at a gym. Meanwhile, the man who directly oversaw the operation for Mohammed bin Salman, Saud al-Qahtani, was exonerated and has faced no punishment.

According to U.S. intelligence, Mr. Qahtani directed a special intelligence unit that abducted dissidents from abroad. He also supervised the arrest and torture of women who had campaigned for the right to drive. He remains a key aide to Mohammed bin Salman, who has repeatedly rejected U.S. demands that he be brought to justice. As long as the Saudi ruler and his henchmen continue to enjoy that impunity, their victims will continue to pile up.

Read more:

David Ignatius: Inside the palace intrigue in Jordan and a thwarted ‘deal of the century’

Jason Rezaian: Biden shouldn’t be shy about fixing one of Trump’s most destructive legacies

Areej al-Sadhan: Saudi Arabia sentenced my brother to 20 years for tweeting. This could be his last chance.

Irwin Cotler and Brandon Silver: Saudi Arabia is persecuting a peaceful blogger — again. Silence could be disastrous.