Khashoggi Murder Trial Begins, But Answers Still Far from Reach

The shocking murder of 59-year-old Jamal Khashoggi on 2 October 2018 continues to cause significant repercussions for both the political relationships and international image of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom has fallen into its most dire diplomatic crisis to date, and the character of leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is under fire on the world stage. Khashoggi was allegedly assaulted, strangled, and cut into pieces by a group of 15 Saudi Arabian men. Of recent importance is the commencement of a murder trial the week of 30 December 2018. Eleven suspects are on trial in Riyadh. This case has immediately raised major concerns regarding the transparency, justice, and intention of the Saudi Arabian government.

None of the 11 suspects have been publicly named due to supposed Saudi legal requirements prohibiting the disclosure of their identities. The prosecutor general is Saud al-Mojeb was carefully selected by the Crown Prince. This appointment has been vastly concerning considering the general consensus among the U.S. Senate and Western intelligence agencies regarding the culpability of the 33-year-old ruler.

The issue here is that despite the significance of the murder, the most disturbing aspect of these events is the lack of transparency, and air of conspiracy surrounding them. That the crime was initially covered up, and that the whole situation smacks of the involvement of high ranking Saudi officials sets an uncomfortable precedent for the operations and efficacy of a trial run within the very same system. The Middle East director at Amnesty International, Samah Hadid, argues that “the impartiality of any investigations and trial would be in question”.

Unrest is also being felt in Turkey as a byproduct of this trial. “Unfortunately, the Saudi legal system is very opaque and I highly doubt any measures taken by their justice system will satisfy Turkish officials”, stated Yusuf Erim of TRT World State Television in Turkey. Pushes for the extradition of the suspects to Turkey have been frantic. Officials in Ankara are of the belief that the current trial is merely an attempt to absolve the highest Saudi authorities of any involvement with the crime. Al-Mojeb, on the other hand, is demanding that Turkey hand any and all evidence pertaining to the case over to Saudi Arabia.

Another alarming facet of this trial is that the death penalty is being sought against five of the 11 suspects. The United Nations has asserted that they are firmly “against the imposition of the death penalty”, however, the moral implications of this action are not the only aspect met with trepidation. There are two major questions that this trial should be aiming to answer: where is Khashoggi’s body, and who gave the order for this murder. The intention of the Saudi government to end the lives of suspects who may have critical information in providing responses casts a shadow of distrust over their motives.

The cloak and dagger approach adopted by Saudi officials during this whole affair leads to only one logical conclusion, that the trial of the alleged Khashoggi murderers should be conducted by an independent, and impartial body. The United Nations has clearly stressed that any attempts by the Saudi legal system to provide justice for the murder would not be sufficient. Hadid furthers this support in his statement that, “a UN-led and independent investigation is needed into the murder”. Though ideal, it does not seem probable that such an event would occur. The likelihood that Riyadh would accept international intervention on such a sensitive and volatile matter is low.

The Saudi legal system lacks critical transparency. The heavy involvement the Crown Prince, whom the West suspect of directing the murder, in his appointment of the prosecutor general coupled with his imposing and threatening presence over Saudi citizens, creates conditions that are not conducive to a conclusive and just trial. The involvement of an impartial body, such as the UN, in this trial, is imperative in order to gain answers for a murder that has been shrouded in mystery. We are unlikely to ever receive these answers, but if they are what we expect, the implications for the diplomatic relationships of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would be sensed worldwide.