(Beirut) –The United States, Turkey, EU member states, and other countries should reject Saudi Arabia’s attempted whitewash about the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, Human Rights Watch said today.

Saudi Arabia’s statement about Khashoggi’s death appears to be designed to insulate Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman from further scrutiny and to prevent full accountability for Khashoggi’s killing. Concerned countries should call for the creation of a United Nations investigation to independently determine the circumstances surrounding Saudi Arabia’s role in Khashoggi’s killing and to identify those responsible for authorizing, planning, and executing any activities connected with the case.

“Given how often Saudi Arabia has repeatedly lied to the world about Khashoggi’s disappearance and killing there’s no reason to take seriously the results of its ‘internal investigation,’” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Demotions of senior officials as scapegoats will not remove the stench of Khashoggi’s killing from Mohammad bin Salman.”

On October 20, 2018, Saudi Arabia released two statements confirming Khashoggi’s violent death in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The first statement claimed that Khashoggi died as the result of a “brawl and a fist fight” with “persons who met him.” The second statement announced that Saudi Arabia’s Public Prosecutor had ordered the detention of 18 Saudi men who “had travelled to Istanbul to meet with… [Khashoggi] as there were indications of the possibility of his returning back to the country.” It also accused the men of attempting to cover up Khashoggi’s killing.

In addition to the arrests, on October 20 Saudi Arabia announced the formation of a ministerial committee to “restructure the General Intelligence Presidency and modernize its regulations…”. Saudi authorities also announced the resignation of five high-ranking officials. They included a royal court adviser, Saud al-Qahtani, and the deputy intelligence chief, Ahmed al-Assiri, who formerly served as the spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition carrying out military operations in Yemen, al-Qahtani tweeted in August 2017 that he does not act without orders from the king and crown prince.

In response to the Saudi government’s statement, Turkish government spokesman Ömer Çelik emphasized that Turkey’s own independent investigation would reveal what had happened to Khashoggi and that Turkey had a “debt of honor” for the investigation to uncover the full circumstances. 

The European Union and its 28 member states issued a statement insisting on a “thorough, credible and transparent investigation, shedding proper clarity on the circumstances of the killing and ensuring full accountability of all those responsible” but stopped short of calling for an international probe. Canada called “for a thorough investigation, in full collaboration with the Turkish authorities.”

Three prominent United Nations experts – Bernard Duhaime, chair-rapporteur of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression; and Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on summary executions, have called for an “independent and international investigation” into the Khashoggi matter.

UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has not made any commitments on ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia, saying the UK-Saudi relationship is “strategic” and any UK response would be “considered.” 

Though prominent US republican senators ridiculed the Saudi explanation of Khashoggi’s killing as not credible and “bizarre,” President Donald Trump’s response has been ambiguous. On October 20 he responded to journalists that he viewed the Saudi explanation as credible and said, “I think we’re getting close to solving a big problem.” He subsequently said that he was “not satisfied” with the Saudi explanation.

He also repeated that he does not favor ending weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on October 18 that the Trump administration had “clamped down” on intelligence around the Khashoggi affair, refusing to share it with the entire senate.

“President Trump has repeatedly given cover for Saudi Arabia’s ludicrous explanations and obvious attempts to cover up the truth behind who is ultimately responsible for Khashoggi’s murder,” Page said. “Conducting business as usual with Saudi Arabia would give dictators across the globe the green light to murder critics with no accountability, as long as they have enough money to buy US weapons.”

In addition to cooperating with a potential UN investigation into the Khashoggi affair, Saudi Arabia should respond to this incident by making fundamental changes to improve its human rights situation, Human Rights Watch said.

Necessary steps include releasing all peaceful Saudi critics and human rights advocates imprisoned solely for their human rights work. Those who should be immediately released include: Loujain al-HathloulAziza al-YousefEman al-NafjanNouf AbdelazizMayaa al-ZahraniHatoon al-FassiSamar BadawiNassema al-Sadah, Waleed Abu al-KhairAbdulaziz al-ShubailyMohammed al-QahtaniAbdullah al-HamidFadhil al-ManasifAbdulkareem al-KhodrFowzan al-HarbiRaif BadawiSaleh al-AshwanAbdulrahman al-HamidZuhair KutbiAlaa BrinjiNadhir al-MajedIssa al-NukheifiEssam KoshakMohammad al-OtaibiAbdullah al-Attawi, and Fahad al-Fahad.

With Saudi Arabia’s continued grave violations of the laws of war and millions of people at imminent risk of death from starvation and preventable diseases in Yemen, urgent international action, including UN sanctions on Saudi leaders, is also needed. Such action should press Saudi Arabia and the coalition it leads to halt all unlawful attacks and restrictions on aid in Yemen, and to ensure accountability for the actions of the coalition. The coalition has committed numerous violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen, including likely war crimes, and has failed to carry out credible investigations into alleged violations or to provide civilian victims redress.

“If Saudi Arabia wants to fix its badly-tarnished international reputation it needs to halt its unrelenting assault on peaceful critics, as well as end the culture of impunity for grave crimes at home and abroad that persists for top Saudi leaders,” Page said.