The disappearance and possible murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi is an important test case for despots everywhere. Can they get away with interrogating, kidnapping, and even assassinating their critics in other countries?
Khashoggi, a resident of the United States and contributor to the Washington Post, walked into Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, two weeks ago and disappeared. It seems increasingly likely he was killed by a team of Saudi operatives sent to Istanbul for this purpose. King Salman of Saudi Arabia and his powerful crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, have denied any knowledge of these events, and a Saudi-owned television network has insisted that the accused Saudi agents were, in fact, tourists.
Yet a steady drip of information leaks from Turkish officials and media investigations have punctured these denials. On Tuesday, the New York Times identified four of the Saudi “tourists” as members of bin Salman’s personal security detail.
US President Donald Trump initially reacted with appropriate outrage, but has since altered his stance. Although he continues to call for further investigation, he emphasizes that King Salman and the crown prince were “very strong” with their denials. He has also mused that “rogue killers” may have been responsible, seeming to offer the Saudis an alibi.
There is more at stake in this diplomatic crisis than justice and accountability for a possible heinous crime. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, among the 44 journalists killed so far this year, 27 were deliberately murdered.
Press freedoms and the safety of journalists are under threat in many countries, but a state-directed assassination of a high-profile columnist living in another country would be an extraordinary escalation.
And it’s not just journalists being targeted. Authoritarian regimes are brazenly venturing abroad to threaten, kidnap, or even kill their critics and whistleblowers.
Many of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s critics have disappeared or perished abroad under suspicious circumstances. The poisoning of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England earlier this year (and the death of a British citizen who accidentally contacted the poison) seemed to be the most recent example of Putin’s extraterritorial score-settling.
British authorities have charged two men with the attack, alleging that both are active Russian intelligence agents, a conclusion also reached by independent investigators. Chinese security agents have also conducted a number of alleged kidnappings abroad. In 2015, five Hong Kong–based booksellers and book publishers disappeared and later reappeared in mainland Chinese prisons.
One of them, Gui Minhai, was apparently snatched from his apartment in Thailand. In another case, democracy campaigner Li Xin disappeared from a train in Thailand and turned up in a Chinese jail months later, claiming to have returned “voluntarily.” Other Chinese dissidents have reportedly been seized in Myanmar and Vietnam.
Turkey, the affronted party in the Khashoggi case, has conducted its own aggressive campaign to silence suspected opponents at home and abroad, including journalists. Since a failed 2016 coup against his government, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought, in particular, to repatriate supporters of a cleric and former political rival whom he accuses of orchestrating the coup.
Erdogan’s deputy prime minister has publicly bragged that Turkish intelligence services have seized at least 80 Turkish nationals from multiple countries.
In one suspicious case in July, masked men reportedly abducted a Turkish educator in Mongolia and took her to a private airplane whose call sign matched that of the Turkish Air Force. She was released only after Mongolian authorities grounded the flight.
Authoritarian leaders seem to be emboldened by Trump’s lukewarm approach to human rights and press freedoms. They probably took note of his praise for America’s post-9/11 torture and forced “renditions” of terrorism suspects. They have likely heard him characterize the US media as “the enemy of the people.”
Saudi leaders, in particular, may have believed that their close relationship with President Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, would provide them with diplomatic cover. After all, when Riyadh excoriated Canada for speaking out on behalf of the human rights of Saudi activists, the White House did nothing.
Now, the United States and other liberal democracies face a serious test. If they do not put down a clear marker in the case of Jamal Khashoggi, despots everywhere will quietly celebrate. Authoritarian regimes will target even more of their overseas critics, including journalists, and ignore empty calls for them to stop.
This is how international norms are undone or upheld: one case at a time.
Roland Paris is professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa, research associate at Chatham House, and former foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
This article was first published in the Toronto Star on 17 October 2018.