Intel: Why the Saudis can’t put the Khashoggi case to rest

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The United Nations human rights office today declared that it was unable to judge the fairness of the Saudi trial into the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, casting further doubt over the proceedings that kicked off Thursday. Renewing calls for an independent investigation with “international involvement,” spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said the Saudis’ purported efforts to seek justice for the Oct. 2 slaying of the 60-year-old in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul were “insufficient.”

A Saudi prosecutor is seeking the death penalty for five of the 11 suspects in the murder. The UN said it was against the imposition of the death sentence. 

Why it matters: There is broad consensus among Western governments that a team of 15 Saudi operatives was flown in to execute Khashoggi under orders from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi Arabia, which initially denied that Khashoggi had been murdered before caving in the face of systematically leaked evidence to the contrary by Turkey, now claims the team went rogue. The UN spokeswoman’s comments show that the international community isn’t buying that story either.

The barrage of outrage leveled against the kingdom’s de facto ruler has rallied many Saudis around the flag. But the scapegoating of underlings carrying out orders may be one step too far. With this move, the royal family is undermining its own standing among loyalists, said Abdullah Aloudh, a Saudi writer who is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. “The message of this trial is that no matter how devoted you are, doing as the prince bids no longer assures one’s immunity,” Aloudh told Al-Monitor. “Quite the opposite,” he said.

“These kinds of actions will over time unravel the delicate equilibrium on which the House of Saud rests,” Aloudh added. The possibility that the cases against Khashoggi’s executioners will be quietly dropped once the furor around Khashoggi’s murder dies down, however, cannot be excluded.

What’s next: Turkey has from the outset successfully leveraged the tragedy to tarnish Prince Mohammed’s global standing. Though the initial blast of leaks pointing to princely collusion has subsided, grisly details surrounding Khashoggi’s last moments continue to emerge. This week, the pro-government A Haber news channel broadcast images of what it claimed were the Saudi hitmen carrying bags believed to contain Khashoggi's body parts. Turkey continues to press the United Nations to probe the murder or to set up a fact-finding mission that would not require a UN Security Council mandate. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu argued last month that the mission could be authorized by the secretary-general or the body’s Human Rights Committee. Cavusoglu, complaining that Saudi Arabia had not “informed us on where they buried the body or what they did to it,” added that Turkey’s own probe into the killing was continuing. Hence, Prince Mohammed may need to wait a while for the scandal to die down — if it ever does.

Know more: Read Al-Monitor contributor Giorgio Cafiero’s analysis of the impact of the case. Click here to read Al-Monitor columnist Bruce Riedel’s essay on Prince Mohammed’s “Awful Year.”

-Amberin Zaman

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Found in: Khashoggi

Al-Monitor Staff

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