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U.S. Politics Germany freezes arms exports to Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi’s death

This image taken from CCTV video obtained by the Turkish broadcaster TRT World and made available on Oct. 21, 2018, purportedly showing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Oct. 2, 2018.

Germany is freezing arms exports to Saudi Arabia as Riyadh faces a growing chorus of international condemnation over the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate and near-universal disbelief over the kingdom’s shifting explanations for his death.

Leaders in the world’s capitals, from Washington to Berlin to Ottawa, lined up on the weekend to reject Riyadh’s story that Mr. Khashoggi died after getting into fisticuffs with a group of men inside the consulate. And Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to reveal on Tuesday “the naked truth” of what happened to Mr. Khashoggi.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the ban on exports will stay in place while questions remain over Mr. Khashoggi’s fate. “I agree with those who say that arms exports, which are already limited, cannot happen given the circumstances,” she said on Sunday.

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Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said in a statement Saturday that the Saudi narratives of Mr. Khashoggi’s death “lack consistency and credibility” and that the killers “must face justice.”

But she stopped short of announcing sanctions or freezing weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. Her office said Sunday it had “nothing to add” to the statement when asked if such measures were under consideration. The Liberal government has faced tough questions in recent years over its decision to approve the export permits for the $15-billion sale of military vehicles to Riyadh..

American legislators are calling for sanctions, and the resignation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in the face of vacillation from President Donald Trump.

Saudi Arabia, for its part, tried to insulate the 33-year-old Crown Prince, the country’s de facto leader, from responsibility for the slaying, after his inner circle was linked to the act. Riyadh’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir insisted Sunday Mr. Khashoggi’s death was the fault of a “rogue operation” and a “tremendous mistake,” and vowed the perpetrators would be punished.

Mr. Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist living in self-imposed exile in a suburb of Washington, vanished Oct. 2 after entering the consulate to obtain papers so he could marry his Turkish fiancée.

Saudi Arabia initially claimed Mr. Khashoggi left the consulate a short time after arriving. But Turkish pro-government newspapers said Mr. Khashoggi was actually killed and dismembered with a bone saw by a 15-man assassination squad dispatched from Riyadh.

On Friday, Saudi Arabia admitted Mr. Khashoggi was killed in the consulate, but said his death was the result of a fistfight. It said 18 Saudi nationals had been detained, and two top security officials fired.

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Mr. al-Jubeir, appearing Sunday on Fox News, conceded Mr. Khashoggi was killed by Saudi security personnel in the consulate, but claimed the country’s leadership did not order it. “The Crown Prince was not aware of this,” he said. “This was an operation that was a rogue operation.”

U.S.-born financier Bill Browder, who has led an international campaign for Magnitsky sanctions inspired by the killing of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, said Canada is in an ideal position to lead a campaign against Saudi human-rights abuses because it already “burned its bridges” with Riyadh in August. The Kingdom expelled Canada’s ambassador and froze new trade after Ms. Freeland called for the release of two jailed Saudi human-rights activists.

Ottawa could hit Saudi officials with sanctions under the terms of the Magnitsky Act, Mr. Browder said. The legislation, originally passed to impose sanctions on people connected with the killing Mr. Magnitsky, has also been used to put sanctions on human-rights abusers from Myanmar and Venezeula to South Sudan.

“The Magnitsky law is perfectly designed to deal with the Khashoggi case,” Mr. Browder told The Globe and Mail on Sunday. “Canada has a great advantage because Canada’s already in the penalty box with Saudi Arabia. It gives Canada the perfect opportunity for no cost and all benefit to be out in front on this.”

Republican Senator Bob Corker called for Magnitsky-type sanctions against Saudi officials if investigations find that Crown Prince Mohammed was involved. “There has to be a punishment and a price paid for that. … Do I think he did it? Yes, I think he did,” Mr. Corker, chair of the Senate foreign-relations committee, said on CNN.

Mr. Trump has previously said he is reluctant to punish Saudi Arabia because the country spends a lot of money on weapons from the United States. Riyadh is also a long-standing American ally at a time when the Trump administration is taking a harder line against Iran, the Saudis’ long-time regional rival.

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On Saturday, the President conceded in a Washington Post interview that Riyadh’s explanation had included “lies,” but he praised the Crown Prince as “by far the strongest person” to be running Saudi Arabia.

Joel Rubin, a former U.S. State Department and congressional staffer, said there are numerous options for Congress to punish Riyadh or pressure Mr. Trump to do so. For one, he said, Congress has the power to block arms sales. It could also refuse to confirm State Department appointees until the administration crafts a satisfactory response to Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. Or it could pass a sanctions bill and send it to Mr. Trump’s desk.

“Congress can be the bully pulpit. But more than that, it can also be the backbone, the spine in a supine administration,” Mr. Rubin said.

Sustained public pressure could also be enough to force the President’s hand, he said, given that there seems to be no political upside to carrying water for Riyadh: “Is the foreign entanglement where you’re defending Saudi Arabia really where you want to go? Is it really in your interest?”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article said the Liberal government approved the sale of military vehicles to Riyadh. In fact, it approved the export permits. This version has been corrected.
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