One way to grasp the enormity of what has just taken place in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, is to compare the murder used to silence Jamal Khashoggi with the mistreatment deployed against two prominent dissidents in Russia and Iran.
The first, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, has just ended a hunger strike after 145 days in order to avoid being force-fed. Sentsov – who was tried and sentenced to 20 years in prison on bogus criminal charges after denouncing Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military interference with Ukraine – started a hunger strike on May 14 to demand the release of all Ukrainian prisoners in Russia. He is currently shortlisted for the European Union’s prestigious Sakharov Prize.
The second, the Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, won the Sakharov Prize in 2012. A fearless defender of women’s and children’s rights, she has been detained since mid-June and told she must serve a five-year prison sentence, handed down, in absentia, three years ago. Sotoudeh’s lawyers have already demonstrated the absurdity of the charges and sentence in question, but she remains in prison while they argue for her release.
In both of these cases, as with most acts of censorship, the state’s bullying has stirred far greater public interest in the original acts of criticism or dissent rather than producing silence. Both states have also faced widespread international condemnation for their actions. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has chosen to ignore these lessons at its peril. Furthermore, by dispensing with even the fig leaf of a criminal charge or trial while pursuing their target, the Saudis have behaved more like the medieval theocrats which they are, than like the modern statesmen they pretend to be.
The Washington Post reports that someone who listened to the audio recording acquired by Turkish intelligence said: “You can hear his [Jamal Khashoggi’s] voice and the voices of men speaking Arabic. You can hear how he was interrogated, tortured and then murdered.” The Post also notes that the alleged mastermind of the murder, crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman, has long been viewed by US National Security officials as an “impetuous and ruthless leader who has an overly simplistic view of the complex challenges the United States faces in the Middle East.”
Already, a bipartisan group of US lawmakers has invoked the Global Magnitsky Act, which leaves President Trump up to 120 days to make a decision as to how to punish Saudi Arabia if it is as guilty as current evidence suggests.
Trump’s usual blend of obfuscation and prevarication is not well suited to his current situation. The economic consequences of a trade war with China are being felt by his base, half the country is outraged by the Kavanaugh appointment, and the Mueller investigation continues to grind on inexorably. Now his heavily boosted new ally in the Middle East – Trump’s first foreign visit was to Saudi Arabia – appears complicit in the murder of a US resident who was also a prominent columnist for one of America’s leading newspapers.
Had Iran or Russia carried out such a brazen attack – particularly on someone who had moved to the US precisely because of its press freedom – it would have been tantamount to an act of war. America’s complex and uneasy relationship with the Saudis may obscure this fact for a few days, but not for much longer.
Trump’s record offers no evidence that he has the knowledge, temperament or character to address this crisis adequately. But while he does not yet seem to have absorbed the full horror of what has taken place, he will shortly discover that Khashoggi’s murder requires more than lip-service repudiation of his prized new friends in the Royal family. It’s the sort of dilemma Trump hates, but one he will nevertheless have to solve decisively. The murder has already jeopardised the supposed gains of the new US-Saudi relationship. On the current showing, Trump may soon have to recalibrate or renegotiate a different relationship altogether.