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Five years after Khashoggi’s murder, BRICS welcomes Saudi Arabia and the US arms the regime


Mia Swart is Visiting Professor in the School of Law at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Five years ago, on 2 October 2018, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul and his body, which has never been found, was dismembered with a chainsaw.

In August, Saudi Arabia became one of the six new members of BRICS. Commentators observed that most of the original as well as new BRICS states have deplorable human rights records. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi remains one of the most vivid examples of a BRICS member which has violated human rights to an extreme degree.

On 2 October 2018, Saudi journalist Khashoggi entered the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, never to be seen again. In the consulate a team of 15 Saudi men suffocated him, dismembered his body with a chainsaw and disposed of his body.

The Saudi government and specifically Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, known as MBS, initially tried to cover up the killing and destroyed evidence.

The Khashoggi case indicates the difficulty of prosecuting torture. This is the case even though Saudi Arabia, like most Arab countries, has ratified the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture. About nine months after the killing, the then UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Agnes Callamard, called for an international criminal investigation. She recommended that third states exercise jurisdiction over the crimes committed against Khashoggi.

In spite of various investigations into the killing and the formal inquiry by the UN, there is still no indication that MBS or other Saudi agents involved in the killing will be held accountable. Callamard has said that the investigations by Saudi Arabia and Turkey “failed to meet international standards”. With regard to Turkey, it can be asked whether there was ever a bona fide attempt to get to the bottom of what happened on 2 October 2018.

The Khashoggi murder initially sparked strong criticism of the Saudi government. But instead of holding Saudi Arabia accountable, leaders have developed closer ties with Saudi Arabia. The Biden administration, for example, has expanded arms sales to the country, and Saudi Arabia remains the world’s greatest purchaser of US weapons. And President Emmanuel Macron has twice hosted MBS on his state visits to France.

And five years after the killing of Khashoggi there has been hardly any improvement in Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.

Saudi border guards have killed hundreds of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers who tried to cross the Yemen-Saudi border. 

It is clear that the brutal suppression of any form of political dissent is still common practice in Saudi Arabia.

Peaceful dissidents and public intellectuals are routinely arrested and sentenced to long prison sentences.

Not only is there no general improvement in human rights observation in Saudi Arabia, but media freedom specifically continues to be almost nonexistent in the kingdom where Saudi and non-Saudi social media users who call for peaceful expression online are punished with decades-long sentences. 

In July, Saudi Arabia’s Specialised Criminal Court sentenced 18-year-old secondary school student Manal al-Gafiri to 18 years in jail and a travel ban of the same length for tweeting in support of prisoners of conscience.

The title of Khashoggi’s final column for the Washington Post, published posthumously on 17 October 2018, was: “What the Arab world needs most is free expression.” He wrote that “Arab governments have been given free rein to continue silencing the media at an increasing rate”. He also wrote of the importance of articles being translated into Arabic so that Arabs could understand and discuss “the complications of democracy in America and the West”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Saudi prince has immunity in Khashoggi murder lawsuit, say lawyers

On 20 September 2023, MBS said in an interview: “We try to reform the security system to be sure that these kinds of mistakes doesn’t happen again and we can see in the past five years nothing of those things happened. It’s not part of what Saudi Arabia do.”

But it is clear that the brutal suppression of any form of political dissent is still common practice in Saudi Arabia.

To this day the Saudi government has not revealed what they did with Khashoggi’s body. The fate and location of the dismembered body remains one of the many secrets that continue to haunt those who care about Khashoggi’s legacy and media freedom everywhere. DM


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