The United States on Friday for the first time publicly accused Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of approving the gruesome murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but stopped short of targeting the powerful heir apparent.
The prince, who is de facto ruler of the US ally and oil provider, “approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” said an intelligence report newly declassified by President Joe Biden’s administration.
The report said that given Prince Mohammed’s influence, it was “highly unlikely” that the 2018 murder could have taken place without his green light. The killing also fit a pattern of “the crown prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad.”
Khashoggi, a US resident and critic of Prince Mohammed who wrote for The Washington Post, was lured to Istanbul’s Saudi consulate in October 2018, then killed and cut into pieces.
The Treasury Department announced it was freezing assets and criminalizing transactions with a former intelligence official as well as the Rapid Intervention Force, an elite unit the report said “exists to defend the crown prince” and “answers only to him.”
Biden said Friday that “we are going to hold (Saudi Arabia) accountable for human rights abuses. This report has been sitting there, the last administration wouldn’t even release it… it is outrageous what happened.”
But the United States stopped short of directly targeting the 35-year-old crown prince, known by his initials MBS.
In honour of the slain writer, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the “Khashoggi Act” that will ban entry into the United States of foreigners who threaten dissidents or harass reporters and their families and immediately placed 76 Saudis on the blacklist.
“We have made absolutely clear that extraterritorial threats and assaults by Saudi Arabia against activists, dissidents and journalists must end. They will not be tolerated by the United States,” Blinken said in a statement.
Not seeking ‘rupture’
Blinken, questioned by reporters, said “this is bigger than any one person,” explaining Biden was trying “not to rupture the relationship, but to recalibrate to be more in line with our interests and our values.”
An advocacy group founded by Khashoggi, Democracy for the Arab World Now, called on the president to impose sanctions on Prince Mohammed — with a number of lawmakers from Biden’s Democratic Party also pushing for more action.
“We must also ensure that there are real consequences for individuals like MBS; if not, autocrats around the world will get the message that impunity is the rule,” said Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The Saudi foreign ministry in a statement denounced the “negative, false and unacceptable assessment” and rejected “any measure that infringes upon its leadership.”
The Saudi government, which initially said it had no information on Khashoggi, says it accepts responsibility for the killing but casts it as a rogue operation that did not involve the prince.