Candles lit by activists protesting the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi are placed outside Saudi Arabia's Consulate in Istanbul. 

© 2018 Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Photo

(Beirut) – Following the Saudi government’s belated admission of responsibility for the October 2, 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, it should move promptly to provide justice for its role in the crime and release jailed government critics, Human Rights Watch said today. It should also provide redress and an apology to injured family members and associates and end illegal surveillance and persecution of citizens expressing their opinions, at home and abroad.

​Saudi authorities have obstructed meaningful accountability for Khashoggi’s murder. The ongoing trial of 11 people remains shrouded in secrecy and the government has refused to cooperate with an investigation led by the UN special rapporteur for extrajudicial killings, Agnes Callamard. Moreover, Saudi authorities have not stopped the sweeping campaign of repression against dissidents and activists, of which Khashoggi was a victim. During an interview with the news program 60 Minutes on September 29, 2019, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said he did not order Khashoggi’s murder but took “full responsibility as a leader in Saudi Arabia,” noting that the killers were government agents.

“Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman taking responsibility but not the blame for Khashoggi’s murder is insufficient,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If he’s serious, the crown prince and his government should provide transparency into the ongoing trial and reveal everything they know about the planning, execution, and aftermath of Khashoggi’s murder. Instead, Saudi authorities are doubling down on repression and continuing to silence independent Saudi voices that Khashoggi sought to defend.”

In response to this and other egregious Saudi abuses, other countries should support targeted sanctions on members of the Saudi leadership responsible for ongoing human rights violations and retain the sanctions until they end the violations, Human Rights Watch said.

Saudi authorities do not appear to have probed the potential role of top Saudi leaders in the murder, and they have never disclosed the location and condition of Khashoggi’s remains. Under international law, a state is responsible for the unlawful acts of its agents acting in their official capacity – in this case, the deliberate, premeditated, and extrajudicial execution of a government critic. For international crimes such as torture, commanders up to the highest level can be held liable for crimes committed by their subordinates under the principle of command responsibility. 

Callamard noted on June 19, when releasing her findings, that there is evidence that responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder extends beyond the 11 people on trial and that the mission to execute Khashoggi required “significant government coordination, resources and finances.” She concluded that there is credible evidence warranting a United Nations criminal investigation of high-level Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, for their role in the murder.

While she did not find definitive evidence linking the crown prince to the murder, she did not rule out his involvement. She said that he “had played an essential role in a campaign of repressing dissidents” and that experts found it “inconceivable” that such a large-scale operation could be carried out without the crown prince being aware that a “mission of a criminal nature, directed at Mr. Khashoggi, was being launched.”

“The Saudi Arabian government should make clear to the world that it would be willing to cooperate with a UN investigation, including allowing access to evidence and suspects implicated in the crime in Saudi Arabia,” Whitson said. “If the Saudi government seeks a UN investigation into the recent attack on its oil facilities, then it should also show that it is committed to and will cooperate with an investigation into this murder.”

The Saudi government also should offer some remedy to those injured by its crime by apologizing to Khashoggi’s family, friends, and associates, and apologizing to the US and Turkish governments for murdering a US resident on Turkish soil, Human Rights Watch said. It should compensate those harmed, not with secretive payoffs in exchange for silence, but with an admission of wrongdoing.

The Saudi Arabian government, after an admission of responsibility, should assure the international community that it will end its attacks on journalists, writers, and others criticizing the government, as well as releasing those unjustly detained. Khashoggi’s murder took place amid successive waves of arrests of Saudi dissidents, clerics, journalists, intellectuals, businesspeople, royal family members, and women’s rights activists after bin Salman became crown prince in July 2017. The authorities have subjected many of them to unfair trials, and some have alleged that authorities tortured them in detention.

Releasing those languishing in prison for expressing their opinions is the most urgent action needed, Human Rights Watch said. Then the government should accompany their release with a serious commitment to a host of reforms to ensure that Saudis can speak freely. It should revamp its intelligence forces that target dissidents, as well as establish laws that enshrine peaceful critics’ rights, a penal code that articulates elements of real crimes, and an independent judiciary.

Human Rights Watch has previously called for individual sanctions against Mohammed bin Salman over the Saudi-led coalition’s indiscriminate bombing and unlawful blockading of essential goods to Yemen’s civilian population. His government’s responsibility for continued major human rights violations, some which amount to war crimes in Yemen, only strengthens the case for sanctions against top Saudi leaders as long as the serious abuses continue.

In addition to supporting targeted sanctions, countries should halt sales of advanced surveillance equipment to Saudi Arabia until it stops targeting independent dissidents and activists for repression and releases those convicted in unfair trials. Companies doing business in Saudi Arabia should adhere to international human rights standards and create monitoring systems to ensure that their business activities do not harm human rights.

“Businesses are quietly returning to their profit-making activities in Saudi Arabia, but they remain on the hook for their own human rights responsibilities,” Whitson said. “That includes verifying that their business will neither contribute to nor benefit from ongoing human rights abuses in the Kingdom.”