A new milestone in the Khashoggi affair

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman admitted in an interview with the Public Broadcasting Service that he bore the responsibility for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the country’s Istanbul consulate a year ago. 

“It happened under my watch,” Prince Mohammed told Martin Smith of PBS. “I get all the responsibility, because it happened under my watch,” he said in an interview in December and broadcast this week. 

Turkish media perceived the statement as an admission of guilt for having ordered the murder, whereas the prince had only admitted to having general responsibility for the actions of Saudi officials.  

Prince Mohammed made the statement after he was led to the conclusion that he had the implicit backing of U.S. President Donald Trump, but the president had in fact been ambiguous and meant that he was not sure whether the Saudi ruler had ordered the murder.

Everything started when Khashoggi, once editor-in-chief of the Arab News Channel, started publishing articles criticising the Saudi government. When he felt his remarks disturbed had Saudi authorities, he moved to the United States and began to write for the Washington Post. 

In September 2018, he applied to the Saudi Embassy in London to complete the formalities to marry his fiancée Hatice Cengiz. The embassy directed him to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on the grounds that the fiancée was a Turkish citizen, even though the formalities could have been completed in London. This led to the speculation that he was deliberately directed to Istanbul, because the team tasked to murder him could carry out its mission with less acrimony in Turkey than in Britain.

Khashoggi entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 last year and was assassinated there. There were several steps that Turkey could have taken immediately after the news of the assassination reached the authorities. 

One group of the murder team left Turkey 15 minutes after the news of the murder reached Turkish security authorities. So, they could have entered the consulate and arrested the consul General and all consular personnel. They could have prevented the private plane carrying the first part of the Saudi team leaving Turkey. A second plane, carrying the remainder of the Saudi assassination team, left Turkey six hours later. That plane was ordered to circle above the town of Nallıhan near Ankara, but was eventually allowed to continue on its journey. 

Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations provides that “consular officers shall not be liable to arrest or detention except in case of a grave crime”. Since there cannot be a graver crime than murder, the consular officers could be arrested. Article 42 of the same convention provides that “in case of the arrest or detention, pending trial, of a member of the consular staff, the receiving state shall promptly notify the head of the consular post. Should the latter be himself the object of any such measure, the receiving state shall notify the sending state through the diplomatic channel”. 

Consular officers enjoy juridical immunity only in respect of the exercise of the consular functions.

Turkish authorities did not take any action that they were permitted to, according to these articles of the convention. They have yet to disclose why they did not take such measures. 

Now that Prince Mohammed has admitted that everything took place under his watch and that he assumes responsibility, his statement closes one chapter in the affair, but opens a new one. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wrote an article published in the Washington Post on Sept. 29 characterising Khashoggi’s murder as “the most influential and controversial incident of the 21st century, barring Sept. 11, 2011 terrorist attacks”.

Despite the reaction of the international public opinion, the U.S. government and other world powers have refrained from taking any action against Saudi Arabia. It now remains to be seen whether the Turkish government will be able to move Saudi authorities to take action. 

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.