By Kaline Hamadi
One year ago, the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) hosted a panel discussion on Saudi Arabia that featured, among other experts, Saudi Journalist, Washington Post columnist, and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi.
On September 26, 2019, as the one-year anniversary of Khashoggi’s brutal murder approaches, POMED and 12 other human rights and press freedom organizations hosted a public event on Capitol Hill to commemorate Jamal’s life, give rise to reporters who have been silenced, call for accountability, and to cast a light on the Saudi government’s repression of those who are perceived to be critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his regime.
Featured remarks of this event included UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard, almost a dozen U.S. senators and representatives, Saudi activists, and distinguished high-level leaders in foreign policy.
The event began with the Executive Director of POMED giving a brief history of the murder and biography of Jamal Khashoggi, differentiating him as a symbol for not only Saudi dissidents, but activists and human rights journalists across the globe. Unlike many reporters who stay anonymous and nameless, Jamal was not only an advocate for reform but also a journalist highly active in Washington and well-known internationally. His brutal murder allowed other cases of silencing, torture, and imprisonment to be acknowledged on a much larger scale.
Following the brief introduction, members of Congress voiced their concern of the message sent around the world. Although most spoke on the failure to hold murderous leaders accountable – and the worry it may consent impunity for more killings – the fight for accountability is not over, and in the long run is believed to be inevitable.
Several bills were discussed, including the Saudi Arabia Human Rights and Accountability Act of 2019, a bill, as the name suggests – created to promote human rights and accountability in Saudi Arabia. Senator Menendez spoke on his bill to impose mandatory sanctions on Saudi leaders for the ongoing atrocities in Yemen. Representative Malinowski revealed his proposal for a nearly unanimously-supported bill requiring the Director of National Intelligence name and report to Congress every single individual responsible for the murder, presuming, because he has faith in the U.S. intelligence community, Mohamed bin Salman would be on the list. Everyone on the list would be subject to a visa ban to travel to the U.S., unless the President issues a special waiver through a purposely difficult process. The bill also lays out human rights conditions, demanding significant changes be met before sanctions are lifted.
Congressman Steve Chabot, the co-chair of the Freedom of the Press Caucus, was the sole Republican to attend the event. Although he has never met Khashoggi, he says the work he risked and lost his life for will never stop being fought for.
Senator Murphy commented on the troubling alliance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, quoting “our allies, people that we do business with every single day were looking us in the eye and lying to us. If that alone doesn’t make us question the sincerity of the Saudi desire to be a true, equal and forthright partner with the United States, I don’t know what will.”
Senator Tim Kaine – whom Khashoggi was a constituent of – has been outspoken on this case, as he asked for the FBI to open an investigation into Saudi Arabia’s state-sponsored execution of Khashoggi back in July 2019. He re-engaged the issue, supporting the UN investigation as leverage and advocating the U.S. federal agency retain the investigation, regardless of the vague letter he received in response two weeks following his request.
UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard, author of the UN investigation report, argued that distinguished representatives want us to believe they are legitimate leaders yet touches on what she refers to as “disrespectfully shouting out their silence.” “No country should be able to buy their way out of accountability no matter their influence, strategy, no matter the nature of their friendship. Geostrategic and economic relations demand trust, require common understanding, and should be rooted in core values,” she voiced.
Two effected citizens of Saudi Arabia were also hosted at the event. Lina Al Hathloul, known for her relentless advocacy to free her sister, Loujain Al-Hathloul, an imprisoned and tortured activist for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, and Areej Al Sadhan, whose brother was kidnapped and disappeared at the Red Crescent in Riyadh for his work on human rights.
Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, called on the U.S. to not be complacent with the brutal war in Yemen being waged by U.S. equipment and when dealing with the bloodiest of tyrants, and stated that oil and resources that are no longer of interest should be fought using diplomatic pressure.
Thursday’s event evidently conveyed the importance for the U.S. to uphold the core values of media freedom, accountability, and support for dissidents and victims of oppressive regimes. Khashoggi’s murder illuminated the brutal repression of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. His story and death live on as continuous investigations, legislation, and media attention is given to this prominent cause rooted in upholding the rule of law and respect for human rights.