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October 16, 2019
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UN report on Khashoggi’s murder: US approach will be crucial

The new UN report about the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has detailed the journalist execution at Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate.

The United Nations human rights expert has provided a minute-by-minute account of the execution and dismemberment inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.

The details are based on Turkish intelligence audio recordings which make for grim reading.

They recounted how the Washington Post columnist’s suspected killers discussed cutting up and transporting a body as they waited for what they called the arrival of the “sacrificial animal”.

“Joints will be separated … If we take plastic bags and cut it into pieces, it will be finished,” one of the suspects is quoted as saying in Wednesday’s report.

The recordings and other evidence collected during a six-month investigation showed Khashoggi’s death on October 2 last year was “planned” and “premeditated”, said Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions.

Holding Saudi Arabia ‘responsible’ for the murder, the rapporteur said there was “credible evidence” to warrant further investigation of the involvement of high-level Saudi officials in the murder, including that of the powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).

The UN human right expert urged UN bodies, particularly the office of the secretary-general (UNSG), to initiate an international criminal investigation. He also called for sanctions against MBS.

Hours after the release of the report, Saudi Arabia dismissed Callamard’s findings as “nothing new” and “baseless”. But Turkey “strongly endorsed” the rapporteur’s call for accountability.

Analysts said Callamard’s report lent credibility to widely-reported Turkish intelligence leaks on high-level Saudi involvement in the assassination of Khashoggi, a critic of MBS. Still, much depended on the response of Antonio Guterres, the UN chief, as well as that of the United States, where the journalist was living in self-imposed exile at the time of his killing.

Hours after Callamard’s investigation, a spokesman for Guterres said the UN chief could only launch an inquiry with a mandate from “a competent intergovernmental body”. To pursue a criminal investigation that would oblige all countries to cooperate would require a UN Security Council resolution, he added.

But Callamard said she believed the UN chief “should be able to establish a follow-up criminal investigation without any trigger” by other UN bodies or member states. “It would be absurd to limit the intervention of the UNSG to such scenarios,” she added.

The call was supported by prominent rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Urging Guterres to “immediately take up” Callamard’s recommendation, Amnesty’s Middle East Director of Research Lynn Maalouf said the measure was necessary because steps taken by Riyadh to ensure accountability has been “inadequate”.

But Matthew Bryza, a former US diplomat and senior fellow at the US-based Atlantic Council think-tank, said Guterres was unlikely to initiate a criminal probe.

“That leaves the Security Council [to trigger the launch of an investigation], but I fear the US, under President Donald Trump, will block any action in the Security Council or in the UN General Assembly. The other relevant body is the UN Human Rights Council. But Saudi Arabia sits on the body and may be able to stop other countries from launching an inquiry.”

Calling the Callamard investigation “remarkable in its specifics”, Bryza added: “These shocking and horrific details make the Saudi government’s claim this was an interrogation that went off the rails seem absurd and impossible to be true … an impartial UN investigation is required.”

But for that to happen, a change in the US government’s approach was needed, he said.