Global Freedom of Expression


Jamal Khashoggi: The latest act in a parody of justice but not the final act for justice

Key Details

  • Themes
    Violence Against Speakers / Impunity

May 22 2020 – while shocking, today’s announcement that the family of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has forgiven his killers, was anticipated. All of us who, over the last 20 months, have reported on the gruesome execution of Jamal Khashoggi, and absence of accountability for his killing, expected this.

The Saudi authorities are playing out what they hope will be the final act in their well-rehearsed parody of justice in front of an international community far too ready to be deceived.

But long before this parody began, there was the courageous play of a single man against a powerful system: Sometime in 2017, Jamal Khashoggi — a high-profile, well respected intellectual in his home country of Saudi Arabia, a man well connected with establishment figures – made the tough decision to choose democracy and freedom for the people of the Middle East over his personal security.   The unassuming, always courteous, Saudi journalist opted for the pain of exile rather than be gagged at home, despite enticements of high status and  golden possessions.  And for that, he became one of those whom the Saudi regime most wanted to silence.

On October 2nd, they murdered him. Lured into the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul on false pretenses, Jamal armed only with his pen, his kindness and his politeness, was met by four Saudi officials, members of a killing team of 15. Those officials proceeded to strangle and asphyxiate him. They dismembered him. They disposed of his body.   His was a killing for which the State of Saudi Arabia is responsible; a killing ordered and organized at the highest possible level of the State.

And then the parody of justice began.

Act One was their pretense of an investigation: Saudi authorities sent another team – this time of some 17 officials – to  the Saudi consulate in Turkey to clean up the crime scene.  To engage in other words in obstruction of justice.  The team made a pretense of full cooperation with the Turkish authorities, but did nothing of the sort; the mockery of an investigation laid charges only against the hitmen themselves but none against the masterminds – those who ordered the killing.

Act Two was the pretense of a trial.  Sending observers sworn to silence, the Security Council members allowed themselves to be cast as bit players: gullible and willing hostages to the sham, legitimizing by their presence something that should have been rejected out of hand and denounced for its secrecy and violations of fair trial standards. Missing from the dock – having not been charged – was Saud Al Qahtani, Mohammed Bin Slama’s close adviser, whose leading role in the killing had been identified by the prosecutor himself; a prosecutor unable to bring Al Qahtani to court even as a witness.

Act Three was the verdict.   Delivered on December 23, 2019, and announced by the Saudi public prosecutor, five people had been sentenced to death, with three others receiving jail sentences. Notably, two top advisors to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saud Al-Qahtani and Ahmed Asiri, were released due to “insufficient evidence”.

Act Four is the statement today issued by the sons of “the Martyr Jamal Khashoggi, pardoning those who killed our father, seeking reward God almighty.”  Thus, under the Saudi system, securing the pardon of all those convicted, the first step towards their eventual release; underscoring that  December’s verdicts were the antithesis of justice and instead a purchase of absolute impunity.

But this Saudi parody is not the final play for justice for Jamal.

Of course, justice should mean that the killers and their commanders should be duly, fairly prosecuted, judged and sentenced. But the grave implications of such a crime extend far beyond the authority of a Saudi courtroom. There are other pathways to justice that must also be pursued, including those that address the systemic problems highlighted both by the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and the impunity delivered by the Saudi system.

Jamal Khashoggi dared to dream; to dream of dignity for his people, his country and his region.

He imagined means of expanding democracy in the Middle East. He dreamt of a platform for Arab voices, the creation of an independent international forum, isolated from the influence of nationalist governments spreading hate through propaganda.  With newly found friends, he planned new projects to counter State propaganda on-line;

These dreams are alive. And supporting those who dare dream, stand up to the corruption and the blunt force – that is Justice for Jamal.  Offering protection; funding their initiatives, rising when they are at risk and arrested; standing up to the bullies wherever they are, including at the UN. This is justice for Jamal.

There is a role for the other courts too: in Turkey, the prosecutor and judges must proceed with holding their trial of Jamal’s killers in absentia.  In the United States, all avenues available under civil and criminal law must be pursued.  In Europe, under the principle of universal jurisdiction, the killers and all those who have supported them in one way or another must be brought to justice.

There is a role for parliaments. The US congress must continue to push for the administration to release secret findings on the full extent of Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s role in the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi.  Such findings must be made public.

Further, there is a role for the G20:  a government responsible for masterminding, premeditating, killing of its journalist abroad, in violation of multiple international law principles: such a government should not be rewarded with the hosting the G-20 or other similar events.

Today’s announcement should also propel the UNSG to action:  a follow-up investigation must now be undertaken – an investigation focused on the chain of command and associated individual liabilities, including at the highest levels of the state.

And for the future, to help avoid any future politization of such process, a UN standing instrument for the investigation of targeted killings of journalists and other human rights defenders should be established, building on the various models that have been tested over the years.

Justice for Jamal means that we as an international community must do all we can to prevent and stop executions of journalists.  Journalists are targeted  so that those in power are shielded from scrutiny; so that societies are not informed; so that the truth does not come out.  Investigations into their killings are essential to us all.  Justice for their killings is the surest path by which to root out the abusive power of the corrupt and the corruption of power unchecked.


Agnès Callamard

Secretary General, Amnesty International
Former Director, Columbia Global Freedom of Expression; Special Adviser to the President, Columbia University; United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions