In October 2018, the news of the assassination of a Saudi journalist and activist Jamal Khashoggi spread around the world. According to a UN report, within 25 minutes after entering the Saudi Arabia Consulate in Istanbul, the journalist was most probably injected with a sedative and then smothered with a plastic bag. Shortly before he appeared in the Consulate, one of the perpetrators (incidentally, a former employee of the Saudi Embassy in London) asked whether it would "be possible to put the trunk in a bag". He heard that probably not… the trunk was too heavy. The body was subsequently dismembered with a saw and, most likely, carried out of the Consulate in plastic bags and suitcases.
I knew I would be following that story. I was curious how it was going to end…
Jamal Khashoggi was a widely respected columnist. He had 2 million followers on Twitter. He published regularly in the Washington Post. Initially, he showed some support for moderate Islamic movements. Once he noticed that social liberalization in Saudi Arabia served only as a cover for reinforcement of authoritarian regime, he did not hesitate to speak out publicly and draw public attention to the "other side of the coin".
The Washington Post carried out its own interior investigation in 2018 which revealed that -unfortunatelly- Qatar (one of the main adversaries of Saudi Arabia at the time) had been tampering with Jamal's publications. This cast a shadow over his journalistic impartiality.
Jamal still paid the highest price for publishing his views. 15 perpetrators were involved in the meticulously planned execution. Agnes Callamard (the author of the UN report) decided to publish their names. She pointed out that the Khashoggi case was a breach of human rights, the Vienna Convention and the Convention Against Torture. She called for an international investigation into the matter.
However, so far no country has been willing to take radical steps in this regard. The US need to maintain a relationship with both Turkey and Saudi Arabia within the Middle East region. In his capacity as president, Trump was a great friend of Saudi Arabia (hesecured lucrative contractsto US military equipment manufacturers). Turkey also would not want to expose itself politically.
In September 2020, the Saudi judiciary passed a final ruling that convicted eight people for the murder. Five death sentences by the Court of first instance had been overturned and changed into 20 years of imprisonment. Worse still, we do not even know who was convicted. Agnes Callamard called the whole trial “an antithesis of justice”.
I have recalled here the story of Jamal Khashoggi because on December 28, 2020 the world learned about another controversial judgment in the case of a Saudi activist. On that day a 31-year-old Saudi woman called Loujain al-Hathloul, having spent over 2 years in a detention center, was sentenced to over 5 years in prison. She is supposed to be released in March for probation. She was arrested because, a few months before the ban was lifted in Saudi Arabia, she had been driving a car on her own and had the nerve to post footage of the event on social media. She was fighting for basic women’s rights. She was accused of undertaking terroristic actions on the grounds of “using the Internet to violate public order”.She was also accused of acting in the interest of foreign countries which was based on her meetings with ambassadors of European countries and representatives of iinternational humanitarian organizations.
The stories of Jamal and Loujain still haunt me. Whether or not we agree with their views, they paid a terrible price for their courage and for trying to draw public attention to the violations of fundamental human rights in their country. On the other hand, the West, despite being a defender of freedom of speech, an advocate of transparency and introducer of procedures against financing terrorism or sanctioning torture, has done little to settle the cases of Jamal and Loujain. Once again, great politics, big money and beneficial deals have enabled the perpetrators to escape punishment.
Restrictions on freedom of speech, media control, and harassment of system critics follow a similar pattern in many countries. Step by step. Quietly. May we not miss the moment when it creeps unnoticed into our own backyard.