The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Saudi Arabia’s trial for Khashoggi’s murder is a travesty. Congress must insist on justice.

A protestor wears a mask of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman while others hold images of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
A protestor wears a mask of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman while others hold images of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (Erdem Sahin/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

IT MIGHT not have been a coincidence that as the new Congress convened Thursday, Saudi Arabia announced the opening of a trial of 11 people charged in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. After all, the U.S. Senate so far has come closest to imposing meaningful consequences on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who the CIA believes oversaw the 15-member hit team that awaited Mr. Khashoggi when he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. In December, the outgoing Senate unanimously approved a resolution holding the crown prince responsible for the killing, in spite of his denials and President Trump’s attempts to cover for him. Senators also invoked provisions of a human rights law that will require the administration to issue a finding about Mohammed bin Salman’s responsibility in the coming months.

If the Saudi action was meant to head off further congressional action, it was pathetically weak. The government press agency reported that an initial court hearing had been held and that a state prosecutor planned to seek the death penalty for five of those charged. But the court hearing was not public, and none of the suspects was named. By all indications, not just the crown prince but also other senior officials whom Saudi authorities have previously accused of involvement in the murder have not been charged. Instead, a small group of security personnel, who undoubtedly followed orders when they participated in the attack, are being set up as scapegoats. Those to whom the death penalty is applied will be beheaded, in keeping with the kingdom’s barbarity.

The higher-ups escaping responsibility include Saud al-Qahtani , one of Mohammed bin Salman’s top aides, who is believed to have orchestrated numerous illegal operations against dissidents; Ahmed al-Assiri , the former deputy chief of intelligence; and Salah Muhammed al-Tubaigy , a forensic doctor who reportedly dismembered Khashoggi’s body with a bone saw he brought from Riyadh for that purpose. The Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah reported recently that Mr. Tubaigy is living quietly with his family in a villa in Jiddah.

This impunity is so blatant that even the Trump administration stopped short of endorsing it. A senior State Department official told reporters Friday, in advance of a trip to Riyadh by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, that “the narrative emerging from the Saudis” had not yet “hit that threshold of credibility and accountability” the administration says it is seeking. It would be foolish, however, to depend on Mr. Pompeo, who has described congressional demands for consequences as “caterwauling,” to bring serious pressure to bear on the crown prince.

If the United States is to uphold its values by insisting on justice in the Khashoggi case, Congress must take the lead. The new Democratic leadership in the House should advance new measures requiring U.S. sanctions on all those responsible for the murder, including Mohammed bin Salman, and ending U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen. The travesty of justice that Saudi authorities are staging cannot be the last act in the Khashoggi drama.

Read more:

David Ignatius: The Khashoggi killing had roots in a cutthroat Saudi family feud

Richard Cohen: Pompeo goes from diplomat to hack

The Post’s View: MBS has a toxic record of recklessness. The Trump administration doesn’t need him.

James Downie: Democrats should investigate the Kushner-MBS connection

Jackson Diehl: Why so many Middle East observers bet on MBS