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Khashoggi pro-democracy group DAWN launches in US two years after his killing

Democracy for the Arab World Now was the brainchild of the murdered Saudi journalist
Mohamed bin Salman, right, is widely believed to have ordered the killing of Khashoggi in 2018 (AFP)

A group founded by the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi launched in Washington on Tuesday to carry on his legacy of raising awareness of human rights violations committed by Washington’s allies in the region.

Democracy for Arab World Now (DAWN) was originally established by Khashoggi several months before his murder by Saudi officials in his country’s consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018. 

At a launch event in Washington on Tuesday, Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of the newly established group, vowed to "uphold Jamal's legacy".

She said DAWN will combine features of a rights group and a think tank - doing both advocacy and analysis.

"We aim to make a unique contribution to analysing the specific role of foreign actors, including governments, businesses and institutions in promoting or undermining rights and democracy in the region," Whitson said.

She added that the group will challenge the narrative that portrays Washington as a "benign actor" promoting democracy in the region.

Whitson, who has previously served as the director of Human Rights Watch in the Middle East, said the newly formed organisation will centre the voice of Arab political exiles amid the silencing of dissent under autocratic governments.

"Our brothers and sisters in Egypt may not be able to speak freely, but Egyptian political exiles can. Those are the voices we need to be listening to," she said.

DAWN's researchers will focus on the governments of the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia because of their deep ties to Washington and human rights records, Whitson said, stressing that the group will document abuses and welcome research on other parts in the Middle East.

Senator Chris Coons, a senior Democrat, addressed the group in a video message on Tuesday, calling for a "thorough re-examination" of US-Saudi relations.

"I greatly appreciate your launching this organisation to help hold accountable the United States government - all of us in government - and in particular the Trump administration for the ways in which it has put human rights on its back foot and put economic and military interests first," Coons said.

A royal family insider turned critic - Khashoggi was killed and dismembered at Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul nearly two years ago, in a case that significantly tarnished the reputation of the kingdom's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The remains of Khashoggi, a former columnist for Middle East Eye and the Washington Post, have never been found.

Riyadh has described the murder as a "rogue" operation, but both the CIA and Agnes Callamard, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, have linked bin Salman to the killing, a charge the kingdom vehemently denies.

Influencing US policy in the Arab world

Khashoggi set up DAWN to influence US policy in the Arab world "by linking the local knowledge and political commitment of Arab democracy exiles, with the research and advocacy of US civil society groups and think tanks, combining regional credibility, political authenticity, and advocacy expertise," the group said in its founding statement.

"Friends, colleagues, and supporters are now carrying on his legacy - establishing DAWN with the mission of advancing democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in member nations of the Arab League through an integrated program of monitoring and research, advocacy and publicity, publications, and broad-based coalition-building."  

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Through its research and advocacy efforts, the group said it hopes to counter Saudi "attempts to whitewash the regime’s record of repression and abuse".

Research into the justice system of the three Arab countries will both explain the inner workings of the apparatus, as well as naming officials who enable human rights abuses by their governments, including senior judges and prosecutors, it said.

The launch comes one day after Turkey announced new charges against six Saudi nationals as suspects linked to the killing of Khashoggi.

Twenty Saudi nationals are already on trial in an Istanbul court for the killing of Khashoggi.

Earlier this month, a Saudi court sentenced eight people to up to 20 years for the murder, four months after Khashoggi's family forgave his killers and enabled earlier death sentences to be set aside.