Saudi Arabia's Khashoggi verdict makes a mockery of justice

Two years later, Saudi Khashoggi verdict makes a mockery of justice. The world must act
4 min read
13 Sep, 2020
Comment: A verdict commuting the sentences of those involved in Khashoggi's murder exposes Saudi Arabia's disinterest in justice and must push the world to uphold accountability, argues Courtney Freer.
Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate [Getty]
On Monday, a Saudi court reached a final verdict in relation to Jamal Khashoggi’s 2018 murder, overturning death sentences for five individuals associated with the murder.

The five who had previously received death sentences in December of last year were instead given 20 years in prison, while another three individuals have been sentenced to 7-10 years in prison; none of the defendants has been named.

The trial comes on the back of a controversial pardon issued in May by Jamal Khashoggi’s son Salah, who lives in Saudi Arabia, of the five unnamed people who had last December been sentenced to death for the murder. Due to that, an event which one UN expert dubbed "a parody of justice," the five are no longer subject to the death penalty under Saudi law.

UN spokesman Rupert Colville noted that the trial lacked both “transparency and accountability.” And Agnes Callamard, the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, wrote on twitter that the trial was neither fair nor transparent, also noting that “the responsibility of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has not even been addressed.”

It also remains unclear whether the family has been told about the location or condition of Jamal Khashoggi’s body.

Meanwhile, in Turkey 20 Saudi nationals were indicted on charges related to the murder, including two former senior aides to MBS, Ahmed al-Assiri and Saud al-Qahtani (who was not charged in the Saudi trial). But with those figures still in Saudi Arabia, it is unlikely they will ever face jail time.

The kingdom is not shy about handing out the death penalty or carrying it out in other circumstances.

Double standards

It should be noted that the kingdom is not shy about handing out the death penalty or carrying it out in other circumstances.

Indeed, as I have noted previously, the number of executions has increased sharply since 2015, with 800 executions having been carried out since 2015, compared to a total of 423 executions between 2009 and 2014. The first mass execution held under King Salman, in January 2016, involved 47 people, some accused of being members of al-Qaeda and others part of the nonviolent Shia community advocating for political reform, most famously the influential cleric Shaykh Nimr al-Nimr.

Read also: Under guise of anti-corruption sting, Saudi crown prince finds new royal targets

As would be expected in an authoritarian environment, then, the rules seem to be different for political prisoners than for those accused of carrying out a politically motivated murder, which the UN has determined was carried out on behalf of the state.

In their case against Sunni cleric Salman al-Odah, who was arrested in September 2017 shortly after tweeting a prayer for reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Saudi prosecutors have applied to seek the death penalty; no sentence has yet been handed down, but al-Odah faces 37 charges of terrorism. Some of the charges accused him of revealing “injustices towards prisoners” and of “expressing cynicism and sarcasm about the government’s achievements.”

Two other Sunni scholars, Awad al-Qarni and Ali al-Omari, could face a similar fate, with rumours having circulated last year that the three would be executed during Ramadan, also for expressing oppositional views rather than for any type of violent behaviour. 

The list of political prisoners receiving or awaiting long sentences certainly does not end there. Loujain al-Hathloul has been jailed since May 2018 when she was arrested along with 11 other women’s rights activists and still awaits a sentence. Leading Saudi human rights figure Abdullah al-Hamid died in April of this year in prison, having been sentenced to a total of 11 years on charges linked to his peaceful activism. Mohammed al-Qahtani, who also worked with al-Hamid, received 10 years imprisonment for his activism.

In other words, the same types of sentences handed out for political prisoners have been deemed inappropriate for those involved in what the UN and US have dubbed a state-sanctioned murder.

With the Khashoggi case again in the media, the international community has another opportunity to, at the very least, indicate that human rights matter

The world has an opportunity to act

But while the Saudi leadership, particularly Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) had hoped that the fallout from Khashoggi's killing is over and that the world has moved on, this latest development means that it is unlikely to fade from the public consciousness for some time. 

MBS continues to make clear that he manages political life, and even judicial proceedings, within Saudi Arabia and tracks dissidents even outside of the country. As he accrues more and more power, MBS has also avoided consequences of his implementation of an increasingly iron-fisted rule.

With the Khashoggi case again in the media, and as we approach the second anniversary of his killing, the international community has another opportunity to, at the very least, indicate that human rights matter and that the violations within Saudi Arabia will not be without some type of consequence.

Dr Courtney Freer is a research fellow at LSE Middle East Centre.

Follow her on Twitter: @CourtneyFreer

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.