11.29.18

Full Congressional Record Statement Thursday Of Sen. Patrick Leahy, On The Senate Resolution On Yemen And Saudi Arabia

Mr. President, I hope the Saudi royal family was paying attention to yesterday’s debate in the United States Senate.  The bipartisan vote on Senate Joint Resolution 54, introduced by Senators Bernie Sanders, Mike Lee, and Chris Murphy, of which I am a cosponsor, was significant for multiple reasons, but most of all for what it says about the potency of the outrage and disgust in this country and in the Congress about the conduct of Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince. 

That outrage has been building over time, as the number of civilian casualties since Saudi Arabia’s intervention and ongoing aerial bombardment of Yemen – one of the world’s poorest countries – has swollen into the thousands.  We have all seen the photographs of the dead and dying, and of children who are just skin and bones.  It is said that 85,000 children already have starved to death.  The United Nations warns that 13 million Yemeni civilians could starve to death by the end of this year, if the war does not end.

Of course, the Houthis and their Iranian benefactors share much of the blame for the death and destruction in Yemen.  But we are not supporting them.  Rather, until recently we were providing aerial refueling for the Saudi warplanes, and we continue to provide the Saudis with intelligence and targeting assistance. 

As if the kidnapping of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri, the blockade of Qatar, the imprisonment of women’s rights activists, and the carnage in Yemen were not enough, the outrage toward the Crown Prince finally boiled over with the horrific, premeditated murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a respected journalist, Saudi citizen, and American resident, who had criticized the royal family.   

Mr. Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment by Saudi government agents at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul triggered an international outcry, and it exposed the depth of depravity of the Saudi royal family.  That an ally of the United States would so brazenly commit such a crime, and then so blatantly attempt to cover it up, speaks volumes. 

After a string of lies by the Saudi authorities, it is only due to the Turkish government and independent investigative journalists that we know that Mr. Khashoggi was murdered – a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia and many other countries.  In fact, far lesser crimes – even some nonviolent crimes – are punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.

While we owe thanks to the Turkish government for exposing the facts about Mr. Khashoggi’s case, we cannot ignore that Turkey’s President Erdogan is also responsible for widespread repression, including the arbitrary arrests and imprisonment of journalists, civil servants, and thousands of other critics who have been convicted and locked away after unfair trials.  Torture is rampant in Turkey’s jails, as it is in Saudi Arabia.  

We know that multiple Saudi officials, including the Foreign Minister, Minister of Interior, Ambassador to the United States, and others – all members of the royal family – lied to the world, including on international television, repeatedly changing their story about what happened to Mr. Khashoggi.  Perhaps most revealing was how cavalierly and shamelessly they lied, clearly assuming that their lies would be accepted at face value.

According to press reports the impulsive Crown Prince, while disclaiming any involvement in or knowledge of the crime, shortly after Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance referred to him as a “dangerous jihadist,” which was also false. 

The Saudis have yet to say what happened to Khashoggi’s remains, except that they were turned over to a “local collaborator.”  Who and where is that person?  What more are they hiding?

Reports indicate that the Saudis sent a team to Istanbul to destroy evidence of the crime, during the very period when the White House and State Department were insisting that the Saudi government deserved more time to determine the facts.  Instead, the Saudis were trying to cover their tracks. 

There is every reason to believe that the Saudi royal family is still lying about who was involved. 

We also know that before murdering Mr. Khashoggi, the Saudi government has had a long history of abducting, imprisoning, and executing dissidents and others after sham trials in violation of international law.  

In the United States, the media’s attention, for a time, was diverted by President Trump’s racist rants about a so-called migrant “invasion”, his made up claims of voter fraud, his partisan lies about Democrats, his steady stream of vitriolic and divisive rhetoric that has incited others to violence here and abroad, pre-midterm election frenzy, and now its aftermath. 

I mention this because for the past few weeks, the murder of Mr. Khashoggi had been eclipsed by other headlines.  No longer.  The vote on Senate Joint Resolution 54 is the Senate’s initial answer to the Saudi royal family, and to the Trump Administration. 

This crime, on top of everything else, was so wicked, so repulsive, that no amount of money, no amount of oil, and no amount of lies can obscure it. 

The Trump Administration lobbied hard against the Resolution, warning that despite the Saudi royal family’s many transgressions the U.S.-Saudi relationship is too important to risk.  No one is seeking to sever relations with Saudi Arabia.  But far more important is that the United States stands for the truth, for justice, for the laws of war, and that we don’t stand by when top officials of another government, whether ally or adversary, conspire to murder a journalist or dissident and lie about it.

As of today, the Saudi authorities continue to ignore appeals to reveal what happened to Khashoggi’s remains.  And after so many lies, they insist that the 18 men under arrest are the only ones involved in Mr. Khashoggi’s murder.  No one who knows anything about the Saudi royal family, which controls the Saudi government with an iron fist, believes that. 

President Trump, who has been loath to say anything that might implicate the Saudi royal family, at one point said there would be “very severe” consequences if investigations conclude that the Saudis are responsible.  Since then, even as it has become obvious that the Saudis – including the Crown Prince – are responsible, he has said nothing further about what those consequences would be.  To the contrary, he said “maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t,” but either way it doesn’t matter to President Trump.

Secretary Pompeo has said that Saudi Arabia has made a “serious commitment” to hold senior leaders and officials accountable for the murder of Mr. Khashoggi.  Yet so far, no senior Saudi leader or official has been arrested, and the Saudis appear to have rejected the Turkish government’s demand that the 18 individuals who have been arrested be turned over to face justice where the crime occurred.

According to press reports, the conclusion of U.S. intelligence experts is that such a heinous, premeditated crime by Saudi agents inside the Saudi consulate could not have taken place without the Crown Prince’s knowledge and support.  Does anyone seriously believe otherwise?  Yet yesterday, the CIA Director was barred by the White House from meeting with Senators to answer questions about this.  Knowing what we do about this White House, the inescapable conclusion is that whatever she would have told us would have contradicted the President’s defense of the Saudi government.

Despite all the Saudis’ phony denials, the President appears disposed to ignore his own intelligence experts and rely instead on the Saudi royal family to investigate itself.  Why?  To protect billions of dollars in contracts for U.S. weapons purchased by the Saudis for use in Yemen.  The White House has apparently concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will ride out this storm and remain in power for years to come. 

Journalists the world over face unprecedented dangers.  Those who criticize corrupt, repressive governments do so at great risk to their own safety and the safety of their families.  They are regularly the targets of harassment, threats, and assassination for nothing more than doing their job.  If the Saudi royal family can escape punishment for the premeditated murder of a Washington Post journalist, what does that say to journalists everywhere?  What does it say about the United States, if we are willing to accept that? 

Yesterday, the vote on Senate Joint Resolution 54 showed that we do not and will not accept it.  If the Saudi royal family hopes to salvage its tattered reputation and relations with the United States, it will need to take far more decisive action to end the mayhem in Yemen and bring to justice all those responsible for murdering Jamal Khashoggi.     

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