The World of International Organizations Explained

U.N. team urges inquiry into Saudi prince

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, meeting with U.S. defense officials in Riyadh (ARÊTE/Adrian Cadiz)

GENEVA — In grisly detail, an independent U.N. human rights investigator on Wednesday reported “credible evidence” exists to justify a criminal probe into Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other officials suspected of involvement in Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s premeditated murder.

United Nations special rapporteur Agnès Callamard and her team issued a report pinning responsibility on Saudi Arabia and 15 of its agents for Khashoggi’s “premeditated extrajudicial execution” inside the Saudi consulate at Istanbul, Turkey, that relied on using the agents’ official status and government resources.

She called for the creation of a U.N.-led expert panel to lead an international criminal investigation that would determine exactly who was responsible for the murder and the best way to deliver accountability, whether through an international tribunal or some other mechanism, and for accompanying U.S. probes to be carried out by the FBI and Congress, because Khashoggi was a U.S. resident when he was killed.

“His killing was the result of elaborate planning involving extensive coordination and significant human and financial resources,” Callamard wrote in her 99-page report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, citing six specific violations of international law. “It was overseen, planned and endorsed by high-level officials. It was premeditated.”

Using audio recordings from Turkish intelligence, Callamard provided new and graphic detail on how Saudi government agents — intelligence and security officers, a forensic specialist and agents of the crown prince’s office — prepared to murder and dismember Khashoggi, then waited for him to walk into their trap after he showed up at the consulate on September 28 to request a certificate he needed to remarry. He was told to return on October 2, and left Istanbul that afternoon to fly to London for a conference.

Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen and outspoken critic of his government, had taken up U.S. residence and was working as a contributing columnist for The Washington Post’s Global Opinions section. The certificate would show that he was divorced so he could marry his fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, a doctoral student at a university in Istanbul.

When he returned on October 2, he brought along Cengiz and asked her to wait outside the consulate. He clearly had some misgivings about reentering the consulate, because he gave her two mobile phones and instructed her to call an adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan if he failed to return.

She waited for more than 10 hours and returned the next morning when he had still not reappeared. He would not make it out of the Saudi consulate alive, and there is no evidence his remains were ever found. In the recordings, apparently made using Turkish listening devices, members of a Saudi hit squad were heard discussing how to kill and dismember Khashoggi less than a half-hour before he re-entered the consulate.

Waiting for him in the consulate, forensic specialist Salah Tubaigy assured the leader of the hit squad, intelligence officer Maher Mutreb, that it would be easy to do. “Joints will be separated. It is not a problem,” said Tubaigy, a Saudi army colonel who heads the Saudi Scientific Council of Forensics. “If we take plastic bags and cut it into pieces, it will be finished. We will wrap each of them.”

Mutreb could be heard asking whether “the sacrificial animal” — Khashoggi — had entered the consulate. Someone answered that “he has arrived.” Khashoggi was taken to the consul general’s office and told he must return to Saudi Arabia, where he had been born into a privileged family in 1958 and had a circle of relations that included Princess Diana’s boyfriend Dodi Fayed and Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi.

Khashoggi, apparently sensing the trap, responded that he had people waiting for him to return from the consulate.  “I notified some people outside,” he said. “They are waiting for me. A driver is waiting for me.”

A Saudi official told him to “send a message to your son.” Khashoggi asked what he should say and to which son he should write. The official responded they would “rehearse” a message. “Type it, Mr. Jamal. Hurry up,” the official said. But minutes later, Callamard wrote, the official apparently brandished a syringe.

“Are you going to give me drugs?” Khashoggi could be heard asking. The official replied, “We will anesthetize you.” Khashoggi then fought for his life. Sounds of “movement and heavy panting” were heard, followed by what Turkish investigators concluded were sounds from a saw used to kill and dismember him.

Callamard’s report noted that Mutreb was employed by Saud al-Qahtani, an aide to the crown prince, and there was evidence that the decision to kill Khashoggi “was made before the plane carrying Dr. Tubaigy and Mr. Mutreb had left Saudi Arabia.”

She urged other nations to invoke universal jurisdiction — a provision of international law reserved for war crimes, torture and other serious offenses so they can be investigated, prosecuted and arrested regardless of where they occurred.

“The killing of Mr Khashoggi thus constitutes an international crime over which other states should claim universal jurisdiction. I call on those states to take the necessary measures to establish their competence to exercise jurisdiction under international law over this crime of extrajudicial execution,” Callamard, the U.N. special rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said in a statement.

The report also details the Saudis’ use of intrusive spyware that could pose a wider threat to journalists and academics. It said a Canadian academic research lab, called Citizen Lab, reported last October that the cellphone of Saudi political activist Omar Abdulaziz was infected with spyware linked to Saudi Arabia.

The Pegasus spyware was produced and sold by NSO Group Technologies, an Israeli technology firm focused on cyber intelligence. Using it, the report said, a Saudi-linked operator accessed phone contacts, photos, text messages, online chat logs, emails, and other personal files of Abdulaziz, who lives in Montreal.

It also accessed the phone’s microphone and camera to secretly view and eavesdrop on Abdulaziz — who was in frequent contact with Khashoggi. “The two discussed human rights issues in Saudi Arabia and projects to strengthen human rights in their homeland,” the report said.

Last December, Abdulaziz filed suit in Israel against NGO Group, alleging it helped Saudi authorities to infiltrate his phone and spy on Khashoggi. The suit claimed that in the months before the killing, Saudi authorities had access to Khashoggi’s communications with Abdulaziz. The tech firm denied the claims.

Amnesty International reported last year that Yahya Assiri, a Saudi activist who works as an Amnesty researcher and directs the human rights advocacy organization ALQST, was targeted with the same spyware. Assiri, a former Royal Saudi Air Force officer, founded ALQST, which works on Saudi issues.

A roadmap for U.N. and U.S. authorities

Callamard’s report urged U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and U.S. authorities to demand criminal investigations so that the perpetrators would be held accountable for Khashoggi’s killing. It said the evidence they gathered along with the evidence-tampering and inadequate follow-through on the part of Saudi authorities after his death further indicated Saudi government involvement.

“No conclusion is made as to guilt,” Callamard wrote in her report. “The only conclusion made is that there is credible evidence meriting further investigation, by a proper authority, as to whether the threshold of criminal responsibility has been met.”

Her team also took issue with the United States and other nations for failing to put more pressure on Saudi Arabia. They suggested imposing international sanctions on the crown prince and his foreign assets “until and unless evidence is provided and corroborated that he carries no responsibilities for this execution.”

The crown prince has denied any involvement in the killing, which Saudi Arabia blamed on unnamed Saudi agents. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir rejected Callamard’s U.N.-sponsored investigative report, saying it “contains clear contradictions and baseless allegations which challenge its credibility.”

Khashoggi, who graduated from Indiana State University and worked for several Saudi-based Arabic and English-language newspapers, last worked for the Washington Post. Though Khashoggi was living as a U.S. resident in self-imposed exile, U.S. President Donald Trump has never condemned the killing. Instead, Trump staunchly defended the kingdom, saying Khashoggi’s killing was not worth jeopardizing billions of dollars in potential U.S. weapons deals to traditional Arab ally that is the Middle East’s biggest oil exporter.

Callamard wrote that Guterres “should be able to establish an international follow-up criminal investigation without any trigger by a state” and the FBI also had jurisdiction to open an investigation because Khashoggi lived in Virginia, near the nation’s capital. The U..S. Congress, she wrote, could hold hearings to “determine the responsibility of high-level Saudi officials, and demand access to the underlying classified materials.”

Callamard, one of dozens of U.N. investigators and working groups assigned by the 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council to examine specific human rights themes and countries, acknowledged that it would be a politically sensitive undertaking to launch a criminal probe of the crown prince and his aide, Saud al-Qahtani. Only one senior Saudi official, Ahmed Asiri, a former deputy intelligence head, was put on trial.

“Evidence points to the 15-person mission to execute Mr. Khashoggi requiring significant government coordination, resources and finances,” she wrote. “While the Saudi government claims that these resources were put in place by Ahmed Asiri, every expert consulted finds it inconceivable that an operation of this scale could be implemented without the crown prince being aware, at a minimum, that some sort of mission of a criminal nature, directed at Mr. Khashoggi, was being launched.”

Callamard and the other U.N. human rights team members, Helena Kennedy, a lawyer and baroness, Duarte Nuno Vieira, a professor of forensic medicine, and Paul Johnston, a homicide and major crimes investigator, had previously concluded the preliminary evidence showed it was a “premeditated killing.” 

In their report, she wrote that her team also had credible evidence the CIA notified four Western countries of “foreseeable and immediate threats” against residents who fled Saudi Arabia or another unnamed Gulf nation. Kennedy has said the killing was orchestrated at the highest political levels, with several teams arriving by private jets beforehand in a well-planned hit on a vocal opponent and critic of the kingdom.

The report said al-Qahtani, the crown prince’s aide, “personally directed a campaign targeting activists and political opponents” and briefed the hit squad on Khashoggi before leaving Riyadh. Since the U.N. team began investigating in January, Callamard said, it was not allowed to enter Saudi Arabia and received only 45 minutes of the seven hours of recordings from the time of the killing later cited by Turkish intelligence.

Turkish officials have complained that Saudi Arabia did not properly investigate. Saudi Arabia indicted 11 people in Khashoggi’s killing, including some from the crown prince’s entourage, and has been seeking the death penalty against five of them in a closed-door judicial proceeding. Callamard, however, wrote that responsibility for the killing extends beyond those on trial.

The U.S. State Department had previously announced that it would deny entry to 16 Saudis, including al-Qahtani, for their involvement in Khashoggi’s murder. The 16 Saudis were sanctioned by the United States over Khashoggi’s death using a law that forbids entry to people and immediate family members if there is information that they were involved in “significant corruption or gross violations of human rights.”

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