Journo killing: Never mind Saudi sensibilities, give us his body
We mustn't let Saudi Arabia off the hook on this - and the US and UK must lead the way
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi was so sick and so bizarre that in the past few days I have heard a peculiar defence of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The whole thing could not have been premeditated, some people have suggested, because no one in their right mind would have come up with a plot so blatant. First there was the transparent ruse by which the Saudi-born Washington Post columnist was tricked into endangering himself by leaving the United States. He applied in the Saudi consulate in Washington for a document certifying that he had been divorced, because he wished to marry his Turkish fiancée. He was told, mysteriously, that this document could only be obtained at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He was given an appointment on October 2. On that day the Saudis sent a 15-strong team of assassins, including three members of the official bodyguard of the Crown Prince. They also sent their leading forensic pathologist, Salah Tubaigy, an expert in chopping up corpses with bonesaws. Shortly after Khashoggi entered the consulate he appears to have been brutally tortured and, on some accounts, his body dismembered and disposed of, either in woods near Istanbul or in the Bosphorus.
Since Khashoggi failed to come out of the building, the Saudis have put forth an ever-more pitiful series of cock-and-bull stories. First they said he had left the appointment in good health. After days of mounting international clamour, they dramatically changed their account and said he had lost his life in a “fist fight”. In their latest version of events he was removed dead from the consulate in a rolled-up carpet. They have still to produce the body or to say where his remains may be found. The whole imbroglio is so utterly contemptuous of the norms of civilised behaviour that some people have suggested the Saudis cannot possibly have planned it this way and that there has been some catastrophic cock-up or miscalculation; or that there may indeed be “rogue elements” behind the killing. Alas, I fear there is another explanation for the grand guignol in the consulate – namely that it wasn’t an accident. It was entirely deliberate. It seems quite plausible to me that there was something calculated in the ostentatious horror of this murder and, in that respect, it seems likely that the Saudi state, whoever was ultimately responsible has copied the playbook of Vladimir Putin and the attempted killing of Sergei and Yulia Skripal.
When Putin sent two GRU military-intelligence thugs to Salisbury with orders to daub a doorknob with novichok and recklessly to endanger the health of the British public, he was flicking a giant V sign at the West, but also sending a message to all his expatriate opponents everywhere. Whoever you are, wherever you are, we can get you – and we don’t care what we do or what protections you think you enjoy. That was the signal sent by the Salisbury atrocity and, of course, we in the UK have done our best to organise a response from the international community. So far there have been 153 sympathetic expulsions of Russian spies around the world, the biggest display of diplomatic solidarity yet orchestrated. But I remember the disappointment of the UK government, even in the afterglow of the highly successful Saudi state visit to the UK, when the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia did not join 27 other countries in finding a Russian to kick out. Even though the matter has been raised repeatedly then and since – indeed I raised it myself, again, during a recent visit to see the crown prince – we have got nowhere. The Saudis have said they are too worried about damaging their relations with Russia.
It is notable, symmetrically, that Putin has yet to find it in himself to criticise Saudi Arabia for the killing of Khashoggi, an event he seems curiously to blame on Washington. In the Salisbury atrocity and the Khashoggi murder we therefore seem to have events of a type: state-sponsored plots to execute opponents on foreign soil, where the very outlandishness of the modus operandi is intended to send a terrifying public warning to every expatriate journalist or dissident who dares to oppose the regime.
This cannot become a pattern. We cannot just let it pass. Yes, of course our relations with Russia and with Saudi Arabia are very different. We have crucial commercial and security partnerships with Saudi Arabia, and it is still true that the crown prince has the potential to reform his country, the custodian of the two holiest shrines of Islam, in a way that could be of huge benefit to the Muslim world. But the UK and the US must lead other countries in holding Saudi Arabia properly to account. The body must be produced. The audio tape of the killing, said to be held by the Turkish authorities – if it exists, should be made public. There can be no suggestion of a stitch-up or of denying justice to Khashoggi and his family out of deference to Saudi sensibilities.
The UK should prepare to sanction those involved in carrying out or authorising the brutal killing of this journalist, not least since journalists are now being killed around the world at an unprecedented rate.
And now is the time, finally, to put maximum pressure on Saudi Arabia to do its part to end the war in Yemen. In the face of the growing humanitarian catastrophe, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman should push forward with the plan being proposed by UN envoy Martin Griffiths: to give the Houthis a share of the government and simultaneously rid Yemen of Iranian influence. Even without a ceasefire, the talks should begin. The Saudi crown prince has the chance to be the godfather of peace and to save his country from the threat of missile attacks. Now is the time for him to act. Britain and Saudi Arabia have interests in common and historically friendly relations. But at moments like this it is the job of a friend to tell the truth, and the truth is that the killing of Khashoggi was a barbaric act to which we in Britain refuse to turn a blind eye.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited