Last month, when the Saudis started blaming rogue agents for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the former head of Britain’s MI6 spy agency, Sir John Sawers, described it pithily as “blatant fiction.”
Now the Saudis are seeking the death penalty for five of those alleged rogues. The United States is levelling so-called Magnitsky sanctions on 17 Saudis, freezing assets and cutting them off from business with Americans. Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland indicated Canada is considering following suit.
That’s good. But not enough. Targeting those 17 Saudis for sanctions still amounts to accepting the idea that these were rogue agents.
Until Western governments start to zoom in on the man with iron-clad power over Saudi Arabia and its security services – Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MBS – we’re still being asked to believe fiction.
The U.S. State Department statement that announced the sanctions noted, “at the time of Khashoggi’s killing, these individuals occupied positions in the Royal Court and several ministries and offices of the Government of Saudi Arabia.” They are allegedly the hit team and their supervisors.
One of the 17 is Saud al-Qahtani, one of the Crown Prince’s closest aides. Another is Maher Mutreb, a security officer who frequently travelled with MBS and who, according to New York Times reports citing Turkish officials, called a superior after the killing and said, “Tell your boss.”
There’s no way to accept that this group should be punished but that the all-powerful Crown Prince was in the dark and should be beyond suspicion. Not in the realm of non-fiction.
There is value in targeting the 17, who allegedly planned and executed a brazen assassination or, if you believe the latest Saudi account, planned to kidnap Mr. Khashoggi but killed him in the process. The Washington Post columnist and critic of MBS was strangled inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, then dismembered. Sanctions for those men at least reduces the level of impunity.
Canada should certainly impose sanctions, too. Like the United States, Canada has a “Magnitsky” law – named for a lawyer who died in a Russian jail on trumped-up charges – to punish individuals who take part in a human-rights violation abroad.
Yet sanctions can’t be a diversion from real accountability. That requires demanding accountability for MBS.
The United States is already distancing itself from some aspects of the Crown Prince’s agenda. The U.S. military has stopped fuelling Saudi jets striking Yemen – a war MBS launched when he was Saudi Arabia’s defence minister. U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has called for a ceasefire. On Sunday, Mr. Pompeo issued a terse readout of a call with MBS in which he told the Crown Prince that Saudi Arabia had to hold Mr. Khashoggi’s killers accountable. On Thursday, Mr. Pompeo met the Deputy Prime Minister of Qatar and expressed a desire for a strong bilateral relationship – it was MBS who launched a blockade of Qatar last year.
But there is still a need for accountability for Mr. Khashoggi’s killing.
There are reasons why many leaders might want to let the controversy fizzle. U.S. President Donald Trump has made MBS a key ally, and doesn’t want to lose arms sales. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces questions about whether he will cancel a $15-billion contract for armoured vehicles. But there has to be some effort to ensure the response lives up to the offence.
Turkey’s government claims to have recordings of the killing, and some events afterward, such as the “tell your boss” call. They’ve been dribbling out leaks. The recordings haven’t been released publicly, but senior officials from Western intelligence agencies have heard them. Mr. Trudeau revealed Canadian officials have heard it, too.
There has to be something that comes next.
Western nations have stayed silent about the details. Mr. Trudeau has expressed doubts about the Saudi version, but stopped there. Soon, Western leaders are going to have to start telling us how they’re going to pursue the accountability they demand. Targeting the 17 Saudis involved in the killing is a good step. But calling that accountability would be fiction.