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Khashoggi murder: US lawmakers pledge to push for accountability

Speaking at event commemorating slain journalist, members of Congress slam Trump for 'forfeiting responsibility' to protect human rights
Tom Malinowski, Ro Khanna, Chris Van Hollen and Tim Kaine (L-R) speak at POMED event honouring Khashoggi ahead of murder anniversary (AFP/File photo)
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Washington

On the eve of the second anniversary of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, several American legislators are calling for justice for the slain journalist and berating President Donald Trump for shielding Saudi Arabia's rulers from accountability.

At a virtual event hosted by the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) on Tuesday, members of the US Senate and House of Representatives vowed to stress human rights in America's relations with Riyadh. 

'They've gotten away with murder'

- Congressman David Trone

Khashoggi was killed and dismembered by Saudi government agents at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018.

Initially, officials in Riyadh insisted that the journalist had left the building alive. After almost three weeks of denial, they acknowledged that Khashoggi was murdered but portrayed the assassination as a rogue operation of which the country's top leaders were not aware.

In Washington, the killing sparked outrage in Congress, which blamed the assassination on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. 

Khashoggi, a US resident who wrote for the Washington Post and Middle East Eye, has become a symbol of the attacks on press freedom in Saudi Arabia and the broader Arab World. 

On Thursday, legislators speaking via pre-recorded video messages pledged to honour his legacy by pushing for accountability and human rights in Saudi Arabia.

Chris Van Hollen: Trump forfeited responsibility to uphold human rights

Senator Chris Van Hollen said Trump has embraced Saudi Arabia's rulers instead of criticising them over their human rights violations, including the murder of Khashoggi and the war in Yemen that has killed more than 100,000 people.

"We have our work cut out for us because America has not only been respected in the past because of the power of our military, but because of the power of our example," Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, said. 

"And while we're not perfect, we have worked to stand up for human rights and democracy and the rule of law. You have no credibility if you only apply those standards to your adversaries and enemies; you have to apply them with other countries with whom you have working relationships. 

"But this administration has forfeited that responsibility. And so, we have to work hard to restore it. Otherwise, friends and foes alike will believe they can literally get away with murder."

Media reports in the US revealed late in 2018 that the CIA had concluded that the crown prince, also known as MBS, ordered the killing. 

Members of Congress, including Republicans who received classified intelligence briefings on the issue, appeared convinced that bin Salman is responsible for the assassination.

Tim Kaine: We will hold Saudi Arabia to account

Senator Tim Kaine, a senior Democrat who represents Virginia, where Khashoggi resided before his murder, slammed Trump for his close ties to the Saudi leadership and called for the release of political prisoners in the kingdom, including US citizens.

"President Trump has not only dismissed evidence of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's responsibility for the assassination; he has cozied up even closer to the immoral regime, selling it weapons for its disastrous war in Yemen and putting our country's nuclear know-how in its hands," said Kaine, who was Hillary Clinton's vice presidential nominee in 2016. 

"Recently, we learned that President Trump bragged about protecting MBS from Congress after our own intelligence agencies concluded that he ordered Khashoggi's murder. 

"Let me be clear: We will hold Saudi Arabia to account for these heinous crimes until we see a dramatic improvement in the nation's treatment of journalists and political dissidents... This is what is right and this is how we honour the legacy of Khashoggi - who wanted to expose the fear, intimidation, arrests and public shaming of people who dare to speak their minds."

Tom Malinowski: Overlooking Khashoggi murder not in US interest

Congressman Tom Malinowski, a former human rights campaigner and assistant secretary of state under President Barack Obama, said Washington's ties to Riyadh should be based on interests and values.

"It is not in our interest... to allow any country, even a country that's a partner of the United States, to feel like it can get away with kidnapping and murdering a journalist who's based in the United States," Malinowski said.

"We still don't have accountability for the brazen murder by Mohammed bin Salman of Jamal Khashoggi. I don't believe that our relationship with Saudi Arabia can ever be right, can ever be consistent with our interests and our values, until we have real accountability. 

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"There is bipartisan agreement on that question in the US Congress. We have repeatedly passed legislation that tells this president that we need a different approach."

Over the past two years, Congress has passed several resolutions to push back against Saudi Arabia, including measures to end US support for the kingdom's war in Yemen and halt an arms deal with Riyadh - bills that were vetoed by Trump.

On Thursday, Malinowski said he is confident that these measures will become law if Democratic candidate Joe Biden beats Trump next month.

"We're going to have a new president. We're going to enact that legislation. We are going to have a relationship with Saudi Arabia that actually is consistent with what we stand for as Americans."

Ro Khanna: International community should not be elevating Saudi Arabia

Congressman Ro Khanna, a prominent House progressive, said it is "appalling" that the G20 summit, which will host the leaders of powerful countries across the world, is taking place in Saudi Arabia next month.

Khanna, an outspoken critic of the Saudi-led war in Yemen, also called for holding the kingdom responsible for its "war crimes" in the impoverished nation.

"We still have to hold MBS accountable for his crimes against humanity. He has not had any accountability for the brutal killing of the journalist Khashoggi; there has not been any repercussion," Khanna said. 

"And he has not had to account for his war in Yemen, which has killed thousands of women, thousands of children, thousands of civilians. The war still needs to end. 

"Until MBS is held accountable, until the war ends, the international community should not be elevating Saudi Arabia. It is a mistake to be having the G20 there."

McGovern: No more business as usual with the Saudi government

Congressman Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat who co-chairs the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, also denounced the hosting of the G20 summit in the kingdom while "true accountability" for the Khashoggi murder remains out of reach.

"It is time to say enough, no more business as usual with the Saudi government. And that means no G20 summit until they tell the truth about Jamal's murder; free the human rights and women's rights advocates they've thrown in prison; allow independent media and journalists to report freely; respect freedom of religion, belief and conscience; and end the war in Yemen," McGovern said.

"And that's just the start. We will not achieve a peaceful or secure world as long as we continue to treat human rights as chips to be negotiated away in pursuit of arms and business deals. It's time to change the incentives, and Saudi Arabia is the place to start."

Gerry Connolly: Khashoggi murder is an attack on press freedom

Congressman Gerry Connolly, who represents the Virginia district where Khashoggi lived, said the journalist's murder silenced the voice of his vision for a democratic Saudi Arabia free of repression. 

"Jamal's brutal murder is a direct attack on a core American democratic institution - the freedom of the press," Connolly said. 

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"When leaders fail to stand up for press freedom and the right to defend it, they empower oppressive regimes to undermine the truth. When leaders refuse to protect press freedoms by turning a blind eye to violence against journalists, they're complicit. 

"The Trump White House has opted to remain silent on his death. We will not. And I will not let his death be forgotten or conveniently swept under the rug by this administration." 

The congressman announced that he will be introducing a bill titled the Protection of Saudi Dissidents Act to demand concrete steps from the White House over the killing of Khashoggi.

David Trone: We need to recognise MBS threat 

Congressman David Trone, a Maryland Democrat, said the US intelligence community had concluded that bin Salman is responsible for the assassination of Khashoggi, decrying the fact that the crown prince has faced no meaningful consequences over the killing.

"There has been no accountability for MBS or any other senior Saudi official - meaning quite simply, they've gotten away with murder," Trone said. 

"It's a serious problem for Saudi Arabia, the United States and the rest of the world that MBS feels comfortable violating fundamental human rights, and has learned that he can do it with impunity. 

"This man will probably rule Saudi Arabia for half a century. He likes to project an image as a reformer, but he's already shown himself to be anything but. We need to recognise the threat MBS poses to democracy, to human rights and the stability in the region."