Any journalist who has ever had the courage to speak truth to power should be saying today: “We are Jamal Khashoggi.” As journalists we can never let a fear of retribution silence us.
If what we have heard about Khashoggi’s murder is true, not even in the darkest days of apartheid did we ever hear of the regime’s hit squads having tortured and dismembered the body of a leading journalist who dared to take issue with government policies. Just as the murder of Ahmed Timol in 1971 was not an “interrogation gone wrong,” but a deliberate and brutal murder which ended in throwing him out of the window of John Vorster Square, so the brutal killing of Khashoggi was quite clearly the intention.
Our world has fallen into a dark new abyss. It is a world in which a highly respected and internationally known writer who regularly gave political analysis on channels ranging from BBC to CNN, Aljazeera to Dubai TV was, according to Turkish police, murdered and then chopped up into pieces and whose body parts were smuggled out of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
This was no ordinary journalist but a high profile editor and columnist, and as it happens, the cousin of the late Dodi Al-Fayed, Princess Diana’s partner.
In Khashoggi’s last column for the Washington Post written before he was killed but only sent by his translator a day after his disappearance he said, “Arab governments have been given free rein to continue silencing the media at an increasing rate…these actions no longer carry the consequence of a backlash from the international community. Instead, these actions may trigger condemnation quickly followed by silence.”
Turkish police say they have evidence that Khashoggi was allegedly brutally murdered by a 15 member assassination team sent from Saudi Arabia, that included a bone saw specialist and Dr Salah Muhammed Al-Tubaigy, the Head of the Forensic Evidence at the Saudi General Security Department who had allegedly also worked for the Saudi Interior Ministry, who specialises in autopsies. Turkish officials have claimed that recordings of the horrific death exist.
According to reports in the New York Times that appeared this week, nine of the 15 suspects identified by Turkish authorities in the disappearance of Khashoggi worked for the Saudi authorities. According to the NYT reports, one of the suspects identified by Turkish authorities is a bodyguard regularly seen with Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, disembarking planes with him in Boston in March, and in Madrid and Paris in April this year.
Turkish officials say they have evidence of two private jets that were chartered by a Saudi company with alleged ties to the Crown Prince, to carry 15 Saudi agents to Istanbul on the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance, which left the same day.
Even the most conservative US Republican Senators like Lindsay Graham, who have habitually defended Saudi Arabia on the floor of the US Senate, are calling for a fundamental break in US-Saudi relations, and a halt in US support for the war in Yemen. Republican Senator Rand Paul is calling for a vote on blocking future arms sales to Saudi Arabia and rethinking the US-Saudi relationship, and Republican Chair of the US Foreign Relations Committee Bob Corker is asking President Donald Trump to impose sanctions on those responsible. Never has the outrage over a crime been so vociferous.
Khashoggi had not been considered a dissident as such, but for many years was close to the ruling family and previously advisor to the former intelligence chief. Khashoggi had left Saudi Arabia to relocate to the US in June 2017 after Saudi authorities had banned him from twitter. According to Wikipedia, in December 2016 the Saudi establishment also banned him from publishing or appearing on TV for criticising Trump. Between 2012-16 Khashoggi had written opinion columns in Al Arabiya.
Wikipedia has noted that in 2003 Khashoggi had been the Editor-in-Chief of the Saudi daily Al Watan, a platform for progressives. After a few months he had been fired from that position by the Saudi Ministry for Information, for allowing a columnist to criticise an Islamic scholar who was considered the founding father of Wahhabism. He returned to the position in 2007, but was again forced to resign in 2010 for allowing a columnist to criticise the Kingdom’s harsh Islamic rules.
Since becoming a columnist for the Washington Post last September, Khashoggi had become vocal in his criticism of official Saudi policy on the war on Yemen, the blockade against Qatar, the dispute first with Lebanon and then more recently Canada, and the crackdown on dissent and the media. He never sought the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy, but merely the reform of its policies. For that he paid with his life, but it was no ordinary murder, it was undeniably the most gruesome killing many of us have ever heard of.
If the Saudi regime is involved in grave human rights abuses, as most human rights organizations contend, and it continues to prosecute a devastating war in Yemen, isn’t it time for South Africa to suspend all arms sales to the Kingdom until this situation changes?
Shannon Ebrahim is the Foreign Affairs Editor for Voices360 Thought Leadership platform.