President Joe Biden came under fire from political leaders and human rights defenders worldwide over the weekend for failing to directly sanction or rebuke Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman over the brutal assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi government hit squad in 2018.
“[MBS] now knows he cannot be punished because America—even under an administration that is hostile to him—will just not allow it.”
—David Hearst, Middle East Eye
“Mohammed bin Salman is guilty of murder,” wrote the editorial board of the Washington Post, where Khashoggi worked, late Friday night. “Biden should not give him a pass.” The editorial stated:
That heinous crime against a permanent U.S. resident and contributing columnist to The Post should not go unpunished. Under U.S. law, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, as he is widely known, ought to be banned from travel to the United States and subjected to an asset freeze. That President Biden has chosen not to pursue that course suggests that the “fundamental” change he promised in U.S.-Saudi relations will not include holding to account its reckless ruler, who consequently is unlikely to be deterred from further criminal behavior.
Appearing on CNN‘s “State of the Union” on Sunday morning, White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended the administration’s decision—despite the gruesome murder and the findings of the U.S. intelligence report—to withhold even a wrist-slap from MBS.
“Even in recent history Democratic and Republican administrations, there have not been sanctions put in place for the leaders or foreign governments where we have diplomatic relations—and even where we don’t have diplomatic relations,” Psaki told CNN.
Pasaki said the administration believes there is are “more effective ways to make sure this doesn’t happen again and also to be able to leave room to work with the Saudis on areas where there is mutual agreement where there is national interest for the United States.”
But critics say this is a grave mistake and that some form of accountability or sanction should be aimed directly at MBS.
“With the release of the U.S. report, confirming Saudi officials’ culpability at the highest levels, the United States should now take the lead in ensuring accountability for this crime and for setting in place the international mechanisms to prevent and punish such acts in the future,” Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said on Saturday.
Specifically, Callamard called on the Biden administration to “impose sanctions against the Crown Prince, as it has done for the other perpetrators—targeting his personal assets but also his international engagements.”
Callamard also offered reaction to the BBC on Saturday:
UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions @AgnesCallamard spoke to @LukwesaBurak on @BBCNews @BBCWorld yesterday about US report accusing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of approving operation which led to murder of journalist #JamalKhashoggi pic.twitter.com/4aTHVKbSAl— Sadia Khan (@sadiaran) February 27, 2021
David Hearst, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Middle East Eye, warned in a column Saturday that Biden is sending a “nothing less than chilling” message to the Saudis—and the world—by taking a hands-off approach to the crown prince.
“This will embolden the murderous prince more than anything his friends in Trump or Pompeo could have done,” wrote Hearst. “It means he can get away with doing the same thing again and again.”
“The United States should stand consistently for human rights and human dignity around the world—not just when it’s convenient.”
—Rep. Ilhan Oma (D-Minn.)The Saudi prince, he added, “will no doubt vary his means of conducting his terror campaign against anyone who speaks out against him, but, whatever he does, he now knows he cannot be punished because America—even under an administration that is hostile to him—will just not allow it.”
Democrats in Congress also expressed frustration as they called for true accountability.
“What was already apparent is now unmistakable,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). “MBS and the Saudi regime are directly responsible for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and must be held accountable.”
Omar said she intends to introduce a bill in the coming days to place sanctions on MBS—both for the Khashoggi murder as well as other well-documented human rights abuses. “The United States,” said Omar, “should stand consistently for human rights and human dignity around the world—not just when it’s convenient.”
Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J), a member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted: “The lack of action against the crown prince sends a clear message across the globe that those at the top can escape consequences.”
I just finished reading the declassified memo on killing of #Khashoggi. I’ve read thousands of intel reports in my career in national security, but this one stands out. Here’s why we need to take this seriously and why we need to do more to hold Crown Prince accountable. THREAD pic.twitter.com/EFQqEuGYKQ— Andy Kim (@AndyKimNJ) February 27, 2021
Following release of the U.S. report Friday, the Committee to Protect Journalists called for a strong response from the White House and other global leaders.
“The U.S. and its allies,” said CPJ senior Middle East and North Africa researcher Justin Shilad, “should sanction the crown prince and other royal court members to show the world that there are tangible consequences for assassinating journalists, no matter who you are.”
Meanwhile, the Society for Professional Journalist said it was “outraged” that those chiefly responsible for Khashoggi’s murder have been insulated from accountability even as it welcomed promises from the Biden administration that a “range of actions” remain on the table.
“We hope,” said Matthew T. Hall, SPJ national president, “the president chooses one quickly and decisively to send the message to Saudi Arabian leaders and people everywhere that the killing of a journalist is unacceptable anywhere on this planet.”
The White House has said it would make further announcements about possible sanctions and the future Saudi-U.S. relationship on Monday.
President Biden was asked by a reporter directly Saturday whether or not he would “punish” the Crown Prince.
Biden responded: “You’ll see the—there will be an announcement on Monday of what we’re going to be doing with Saudi Arabia, generally.”
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