Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi Killed by Saudis in Saudi Consulate. So?

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This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series The Murder of Jamal Khashoggi: Why We Should Care

A question on the Big No-No Facebook page: Journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Citizen, was killed by Saudi Arabians in the Saudi Consulate. Saudi Arabia stills cuts off hands of thieves. Why is this a big deal in America? It’s a good one.

saudi consulate, saudi arabia, saudi legal system, saudi criminal law, saudi freedom of speech, freedom of speech in saudi arabia, press freedom, press freedom in saudi arabia, trump, rule of law, jamal khashoggi, saudi journalist jamal khashoggi, journalist jamal khashoggi, khashoggi killed, jamal khashoggi murdered, saudi journalist jamal khashoggi killedJournalist Jamal Khashoggi was a Saudi-Arabian who went to college in Indiana and wrote for the Washington Post, among others. The past year he lived in exile in Virginia and Turkey. He went to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 2, to sign papers to finalize his wedding with a Turkish woman. Here’s an article with more about his professional life as a journalist.

It looks like he was probably tortured in the Saudi consulate, killed, chopped into pieces, taken out of the building in boxes and disposed of elsewhere, by fifteen or sixteen men, several of whom are part of Mohammed bin Salman‘s security detail. One man left the consulate in Khashoggi’s clothes, presumably to make it look on CCTV like Khashoggi left the consulate alive and well.

So yes, on the surface Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed by Saudis on Saudi territory; it was a particularly gruesome, premeditated murder, a murder probably ordered by a crown prince, and as such it deserves a few days on the news as well as big fat headlines, gruesome, staged pictures and a conspiracy theory in the National Enquirer. Why is it a big deal politically and morally for America?

In international relations, killing a journalist because you don’t like his reporting is like killing a cop is in this country. It’s crossing a line that you just don’t cross. Yet it’s done all the time, as well as taking them hostage and many other crimes against journalists. That’s all I knew, really. So I started googling. I love questions that take me into new areas. I found a lot about international law protecting journalists in armed-conflict situations and the organizations that (try to) ensure the laws are implemented. That’s for a next post.

Journalist Jamal Khashoggi was not working in an armed-conflict situation when he was murdered. He  wrote critical pieces about his own country, Saudi Arabia. So he no doubt broke all kinds of Saudi laws.

Saudi-Arabian Law

Let’s have a look at some relevant aspects of Saudi law. (And by a look I really mean just a look, by googling. I’m no legal expert, let alone an expert on Saudi-Arabian law, so I’m doing my best to figure it out and not spout nonsense here, but if I do, by all means correct me.)

Freedom of speech and press freedom

Freedom of speech is non-existent in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi press is strictly censored, in fact it is among the most strictly censored in the world. Publicly criticizing the government, Islam, or the royal family is prohibited, as well as writing about Saudi dissidents.  The Internet is only in part available to Saudis.  Since the Arab Spring, in 2011, when protests occurred, the government has been gradually reining in freedom of speech even more. All public demonstrations and marches are banned and, according to the  Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ):

Amendments to the press law in 2011 punished the publication of any materials deemed to contravene sharia, impinge on state interests, promote foreign interests, harm public order or national security, or enable criminal activity. In 2014, the government issued a new anti-terrorism law and regulations that Human Rights Watch said will “criminalize virtually any expression or association critical of the government and its understanding of Islam.”

Some news media have reported that Jamal Khashoggi lived in self-imposed exile in America and Turkey. Technically that is true, but the Saudi government barred him from appearing or writing in the Saudi media after he criticized then-U.S. president-elect Trump. That’s when he left Saudi Arabia, because he was afraid he would be arrested. I can’t find anything and I don’t remember anything in the news about Trump objecting to the Saudis doing that in his name.

The legal system

Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a constitution. In 1992 the Basic Law of Saudi Arabia was adopted by royal decree, but it’s not a constitution. It basically states that the Koran and the Sunnah (Traditions) are the Constitution and that the king must comply with Sharia. So, Saudi Arabia has no separate set of laws. Just what’s in the Koran and the Sunnah and the interpretations by some medieval religious scholars.

Chapter 5, Article 39 of the Basic Law of Saudi Arabia

This is the article in the Basic Law that deals with expression:

Information, publication, and all other media shall employ courteous language and the state’s regulations, and they shall contribute to the education of the nation and the bolstering of its unity. All acts that foster sedition or division or harm the state’s security and its public relations or detract from man’s dignity and rights shall be prohibited. The statutes shall define all that.

Since there was no written law, and no recorded precedents, it made the Saudi legal system very unpredictable. In 2010 the country decided to codify Sharia — turn it into a set of written law. It’s a work in progress.

The Albert Shanker Institute and Freedom House published a study together that points out several problems with the Saudi-Arabian legal system.

  • Since the judges aren’t bound by any codified law and judicial precedent, they can really do whatever, so there’s no real rule of law.
  • Judges don’t follow due process (since there’s no written agreement what that entails) to reach their decisions, and lawyers rarely stand up to the courts. There are no appeals courts and no supreme court. The only recourse is to beg the king for mercy.
  • Members of the Saudi royal family often can’t be made to appear before Saudi courts, and when they do get arrested for a crime and do appear before a court and when they are convicted, they’re often pardoned or released and any further mention of the case in the media is forbidden. In other words, they’re above the law.

Criminal Law

There are barely any limits to how long someone can be held in detention or in prison when arrested for a crime in Saudi Arabia. And if someone is held for a crime involving national security, there are no limits at all; it’s entirely up to the minister of the interior, who’s a Saudi royal. The country has a long history of holding nationals and foreigners prisoner without trial, in defiance of international law, sometimes for more than a decade.

Saudi Arabia identifies three types of crimes and punishment:

  • Crimes against God, for which the punishment is hudud – fixed punishments as mentioned in the Koran or the Traditions as being mandated by God for specific crimes, including murder, theft, rebellion, apostacy, adultery, drinking alcohol, witchcraft and sorcery. The punishments include beheading, hanging, stoning, amputation and lashing. These crimes typically can’t be pardoned and the punishments must be carried out in public.
  • Crimes against man involving bodily harm, for which the punishment is qisas — analogous to the crime (an eye for an eye), or diya — monetary compensation.
  • Other crimes against man, for which the punishment is ta’zir — at the judge’s discretion.

Trials in Saudi Arabia are bench trials — trial by judge, not by jury. As I mentioned earlier, the judge is not bound by written laws or precedent, and though the country has had a criminal procedure code since 2001, courts in Saudi Arabia don’t really follow them, or any procedure, for that matter. Hence the observation by the Albert Shanker Institute and Freedom House study that there is no rule of law to speak of. The government often doesn’t even bother with trials, disposing of suspects by administrative action or by summary courts, in which, as far as criminal law goes, hudud, diya and ta’zir cases are often dealt with behind closed doors by judges chosen specifically for that case by the minister of justice (a Saudi royal), and who have been told how to rule.

One of three kinds of proof need to be produced for a conviction in a criminal trial:

  • An uncoerced confession;
  • The testimony of two male witnesses (four if adultery), unless it’s a hudud crime, in which case a confession is also required. Women can’t testify and testimony from non-Muslims or folks who aren’t Muslim enough doesn’t count either;
  • An affirmation or denial by oath.  Giving an oath is taken very seriously, since Saudi Arabia is so religious, and refusing to give an oath is taken as an admission of guilt, and leads to automatic conviction.

I imagine journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s crime — writing articles critical of the Saudi Royal Family/government would be a hudud act of rebellion and even a terrorist act under that new terrorism law of 2014. And I suppose his murder in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul would be a case of “disposing of suspects by administrative action”, which would have solved the uncoerced confession problem. He wasn’t on trial; he was at the consulate to sign some forms so he could get married. They could coerce away until he had no limbs left. All perfectly fine in Saudi Arabia.

However, we also have international law; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects freedom of speech; and various other laws that protect journalists. There are many groups who keep an eye on Saudi Arabia and crimes against journalists, and ways individuals and organizations can act against Saudi Arabia’s treatment of Khashoggi and others. I will also delve into the economic ties America has to Saudi Arabia and the decisions the Trump administration has to weigh. I will get to all that in the next few posts.

But this little insight into Saudi Arabia’s legal system and how it deals with journalists like Jamal Khashoggi is also interesting for Americans, I would think, for several reasons.

First: Saudi Arabia is a theocracy. This is the kind of legal system a theocracy has. Vice President Mike Pence and many other conservative Christians want that for America. They call it religious freedom, but they only mean Christian freedom, and they don’t mean the freedom for non-Christians not to participate. Their view is Christian dominionism — getting as much Christian influence as possible in as many aspects of American life as possible. This has been building up for the past decade or so, and it’s why we now have previously unheard-of situations like employers refusing to pay for health insurance for their employees if it also covers birth control, if said employers are personally opposed to birth control because they’re Christian fundamentalists. And wanting to bring prayer (back) into public school, and the eternal pressure to drive science out of the science classroom. It is also why so many holier-than-thou Christians hold their noses and vote for Trump and guys like him, just so he can keep on appointing super-conservative Christian-dominionist federal judges. Saudi Arabia is what a country looks like, eventually, when you let the loudest religious people run it.

Second: Saudi Arabia has judges, and it has a legal system of sorts, but no real rule of law, and the government often can’t be bothered with going through the legal system, such as it is. And the government is comprised of Saudi royals. Guess who appoints the judges? Guess who have the last say in any change to the legal system? Guess who can tell any judge to do whatever they want them to? Guess who are completely above the law in Saudi Arabia? Guess who would love that kind of power in America? Trump, who said, Who needs judges, anyway? Trump, who doesn’t have time to go through the legal system. Trump, who has said he can’t be indicted. Trump, who said he can pardon himself. Trump, who has made the entire Supreme Court justice appointment process a complete charade by pushing through a man who lied multiple times under oath and who quite possibly sexually assaulted a girl in high school while drunk and was seen to behave similarly throughout college, all because the man, Brett Kavanaugh, is a strong believer in the notion that a sitting president can’t be subpoenaed or indicted. Oh, and because he’s a Christian dominionist. Saudi Arabia is what a country looks like, eventually, when you let the least scrupulous leaders run amok.

Third: Donald Trump has railed against the media from the beginning, setting it up so that by the time negative information about him would surface, his base wouldn’t believe it, because it came from fake news CNN, the failing New York Times, etc. Not long after he became president, he started calling those in the media that didn’t write only nice things about him the enemy of the American people. He wants the media to write strictly positively about him and about what he and his government do. With that in mind, let me give you again a snippet of the already very short section of the Basic Law of Arabia on expression:

Information, publication, and all other media shall contribute to the bolstering of [the nation’s] unity. All acts that foster sedition or division or harm the state’s security and its public relations […] shall be prohibited.

Saudi Arabia is what a country looks like, eventually, when you let the leader start deciding what is okay and isn’t okay to say.

Fourth: Donald Trump was the president-elect of the United States of America, the self-proclaimed leader of the free world, when Mohammed bin Salman barred Jamal Khashoggi from writing or appearing in any way in the Saudi media because he criticized Donald Trump. Clearly he did that to curry favor with Trump. Any other leader — of America or any other democratic country — would have protested loudly and given MBS a long lecture about the importance of the free press and how democratic leaders don’t mind getting some criticism from journalists, and then demanded that he unbar him, because he wouldn’t feel comfortable having a journalist anywhere in the world barred from the media in his name. But not Trump. And here we are.

The next post will be about Saudi Arabia, journalists and international law. Stay tuned.

Sources:

  • 10 Most Censored Countries. Attacks on the Press, 2015. Committee to Protect Journalists. https://cpj.org/2015/04/10-most-censored-countries.php
  • Abu-Nasr, Donna. Who Is Jamal Khashoggi? A Saudi Insider Who Became an Exiled Critic. (Bloomberg Quicktake) The Washington Post,  October 20, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/who-is-jamal-khashoggi-a-saudiinsider-who-became-an-exiled-critic/2018/10/20/0a996bea-d492-11e8-a4db-184311d27129_story.html?utm_term=.006b0aa5a834
  • Ansary, Dr. Abdullah F. A Brief Overview of the Saudi Arabian Legal System. GlobaLex. Hauser Global Law School Program, July 2008.  http://www.nyulawglobal.org/globalex/Saudi_Arabia.html#_Toc200894571
  • Benen, Steve. Trump asks supporters, ‘What other country has judges?’ The Rachel Maddow Show. MSNBC, June 26 2018. http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/trump-asks-supporters-what-other-country-has-judges
  • Benen, Steve. When it comes to deporting migrants, Trump has no use for due process. The Rachel Maddow Show. MSNBC, June 25, 2018. http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/when-it-comes-deporting-migrants-trump-has-no-use-due-process
  • Hudud. Wikipedia. https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Hudud
  • Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Criminal Laws, Regulations and Procedures Handbook: Strategic Information, Regulations, Procedures. International Business Publications. Washington, 2016. https://books.google.com/books?id=T23dCwAAQBAJ&pg=PA95&lpg=PA95&dq=albert+shanker+institute+and+freedom+house+report+on+saudi+arabia%27s+basic+laws+of+Saudi+arabia&source=bl&ots=OJascYuboU&sig=WWhW785fYW7OXPZLfbC_csEmw0E&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiErdSNnKjeAhVlRN8KHWo_CM0Q6AEwDHoECAcQAQ#v=onepage&q=albert%20shanker%20institute%20and%20freedom%20house%20report%20on%20saudi%20arabia’s%20basic%20laws%20of%20Saudi%20arabia&f=false
  • Legal System of Saudi Arabia. Wikipedia. https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Legal_system_of_Saudi_Arabia
  • Mohammed bin Salman. Wikipedia. https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Mohammad_bin_Salman
  • Osborne, Samuel. Saudi Arabia bans journalist for criticising Donald Trump: Jamal Khashoggi said Mr Trump’s Middle East stance is ‘contradictory’. (World News – Middle East) The Independent, December 5, 2016. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/saudi-arabia-donald-trump-journalist-banned-for-criticising-us-president-elect-a7456956.html
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