03.14.19

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy On Repression In Saudi Arabia

Mr. LEAHY.  Mr. President, it has been more than five months since journalist and American resident Jamal Khashoggi was tortured and murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.  More than five months since the Saudi government initially denied it had anything to do with Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and told the world – in a calculated and quickly disproven lie – that he left the consulate unharmed.

As the Saudi government’s complicity became clear, its explanations became even more convoluted.  We were told to accept that the operation that resulted in Mr. Khashoggi’s death was an interrogation gone wrong, carried out by rogue agents who somehow flew to Istanbul, executed Mr. Khashoggi, and worked with a local collaborator to cover up the crime, all, despite their ties to the highest levels of government, without the knowledge of the Crown Prince.  Although Senators – Republicans and Democrats – who have been briefed on the matter found that possibility preposterous, President Trump and Secretary Pompeo seemed ready to accept the Saudi government’s lies. 

The truth is that while there is a mountain of information circulating in the press that suggests the Crown Prince was involved in the planning and approval of the assassination of Mr. Khashoggi, there are still many unanswered questions. 

We know the Saudi government identified certain Saudi officials who allegedly carried out this murder, but we do not know how they were identified, what these officials were asked, by whom, and what they have said about the crime, or why some of them were brought to trial and others were not.

We know that the Trump Administration sanctioned 17 Saudi officials, but we have not been told to what extent or why these individuals were targeted for sanctions and others were not.  And we know that there was a local collaborator, but we have not been told his nationality or identity, nor the whereabouts of Mr. Khashoggi’s body, which has not been returned to his family.

What do we know?  We know that the Saudi government – the royal family – is sticking to the latest version of its story, absolving itself of any culpability.  And the Trump Administration maintains, despite many mixed signals, that it is doing everything in its power to ensure Mr. Khashoggi’s murderers are held accountable for their actions.

If that is true, we would expect the Administration to be transparent and to cooperate with the Congress.

But while I would like to be persuaded of their commitment to pursuing justice in this case, their efforts to date have been anything but convincing.  On October 10, 2018, Senators Corker, Menendez, Graham, and I, along with a majority of the members of the Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to the President to trigger a 120-day review and determination on the imposition of sanctions pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act with respect to any foreign person involved in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi.  The response of the Administration has been to ignore the legal requirement to make that determination.  This is only the latest attempt by the Administration to obstruct the Congress’s access to information about this crime.

Rather than ignoring its legal obligations and keeping Congress in the dark, the Administration should be working with Congress, and the international community, to expose the truth about who gave the orders to kill Mr. Khashoggi.  If the Administration has nothing to hide, then they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by being part of the effort to see justice done.   

One way for the Administration to prove it is serious about accountability is to fully cooperate with the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, who is reviewing the evidence in the Khashoggi case.  The White House, the State Department, and our intelligence agencies should promptly provide her with any relevant information in their possession.

As I stated on February 3, 2019, if the President continues to take actions such as ignoring the clear mandate of the Magnitsky Act, or otherwise refuses to cooperate with the investigations of this murder, the White House will share the blame for attempting to cover up the crime and for helping those responsible to evade justice.

The Administration should also urge the Saudi government to guarantee a fair and public trial for the men accused of being involved in the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, that meets international standards of due process.  A trial that fails to disclose all of the facts – a trial that is rushed and secretive – will be seen as simply further obstruction of justice.  Real accountability must occur in this case. 

We know all too well that Mr. Khashoggi’s murder is only one example of the brutal way in which the Saudi government, led by the Crown Prince, treats anyone it perceives as a threat, which means anyone who dares criticize the government or who advocates for human rights. 

Since May 2018, prominent women’s rights advocates have been imprisoned and tortured by the Saudi government or banned from traveling, without any criminal charges being brought.  Women like 25-year-old Loujain al-Hathloul, who had a driver’s license from the United Arab Emirates and advocated for the right of Saudi women to drive, but was arrested in a sweeping crackdown on women’s activists just before the Saudi government lifted the ban on female drivers.  Dr. Hatoon al-Fassi, another women’s rights advocate and a history professor, was arrested in June 2018 and remains confined to this day.  While these women have not been charged, their so-called crime is obvious:  engaging in independent activism.  The royal family will do whatever it takes to make clear that they alone can create change in Saudi Arabia.

That is why, like these women, anyone of influence, including average citizens who advocate for reforms, is at risk in Saudi Arabia.  It is not only opposition that the Crown Prince fears, it is the appearance of capitulation to ordinary citizens that he seeks to avoid by cracking down on those who are merely advocating for reforms he himself claims to support.  His repression has touched every segment of society, from journalists to women’s rights advocates to economists like Dr. Essam al-Zamil, who was detained in September 2017, presumably due to his opposition to the Crown Prince’s economics plan, and Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani, an economics professor and human rights activist who was sentenced in 2013 to 10 years in prison for breaking allegiance with the royal family and defaming the judiciary.

Sometimes the motivation behind the Crown Prince’s actions is a complete mystery.  One egregious case is that of Dr. Walid Fitaihi, a U.S. citizen who earned his medical degree from George Washington University and a master’s degree in public health from Harvard University.  Dr. Fitaihi was seized by Saudi authorities for unknown reasons in November 2017, he has reportedly been severely tortured, and he remains in prison.  In fact, before Mr. Khashoggi was murdered he wrote about Dr. Fitaihi’s detention on social media to decry the arbitrary and repressive trends developing under the Crown Prince’s rule.  Like Jamal Khashoggi, there is not a shred of evidence that Dr. Fitaihi is guilty of anything.  He should be released immediately.  I ask unanimous consent that a copy of the March 4, 2019, editorial in The Washington Post, entitled “Saudi Arabia is torturing a U.S. citizen. When will Trump Act?” which highlights Mr. Fitaihi’s case, be printed in the Record following my remarks.

These cases are only a fraction of the known examples of the Crown Prince’s repression.  There are countless others that don’t escape the royal family’s tight control of information in the country.  This is the so-called reformer we are told to put our trust in to help lead Saudi Arabia into the future.  As others in this body have said, he is no reformer; he is an impulsive, ruthless gangster.  It would be naïve not to think that the Crown Prince’s actions will lead to greater public resentment and instability in Saudi Arabia, and jeopardize our long-term interests in the region.  And contrary to the thinking of the White House, no amount of arms sales, and no amount of oil, can change that reality.

I urge all Senators to join me in urging the White House, and in supporting legislative action as appropriate, to protect our national interests by ensuring that United States relations with Saudi Arabia are guided, first and foremost, by our principles, and most importantly, by our commitment to the rule of law.

The Washington Post editorial can be found in the Congressional Record HERE.

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