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Royal chopping of dissent

By Talimand Khan

The lurid details of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder emerging in the press, put to shame all the previous terminologies and metaphors of savagery, mostly attributed to the so called dark ages and medieval era. Savagery, barbarism, tyranny and tyrants are not mere attributes of a specific era but are part of a mind-set which still exists, assuming different shades and forms.

If ever resurrected, the thirteenth century Mongols Hulagu and Genghis Khan would feel certainly belittled, in front of these current despots disguised in the civilized cover of states and institutions. They would curse themselves for their stupidity of exaggeration, lack of diplomatic and legal tricks on how to cover barbarity.

Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist writing for The Washington Post, was critical of the Saudi regime particularly of Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, popularly known by the initials MBS. Mr Khashoggi was living in self-exile in the United States, due to threats to his life because of his critical views against the new despot of the authoritarian regime.

However, no place is safe when the opponent is powerful and resourceful. Perhaps, as the Chinese idiom goes, ‘Kill one to warn one hundred’, MBS wanted to send the message that none of the dissenters were safe, no matter where they lived. According to media reports, Khashoggi visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018 as per prior appointment to collect necessary documents required for his second marriage. In his previous visit he was asked to come on the stipulated date to collect the documents which proved a dangerous trap.

Khashoggi’s brutal murder by Saudi state actors on a foreign soil indicates a new and sophisticated level of threat to journalists, dissenters, free media and freedom of expression. If it remains unaccountable, such extra territorial attacks on the freedom of expression, may become a trend and a precedent to eliminate dissenters in a foreign land.
Whether directly or indirectly involved, Khashoggi’s murder is perhaps a test case particularly for Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US, whose consequences can affect their images in one way or the other.

So far, the emerging material and circumstantial evidence rendered it difficult, for Saudi Arabia to give an outright denial. Therefore, the regime is now trying to place the blame squarely on the rogue elements, portraying it as an accident during a badly turned interrogation. As a journalist Khashoggi’s views, regarding the regime were public, so what was he being interrogated on and why?

It is synonymous to, subduing a fart with a cough. Mr Khashoggi was not rounded up in a surprise encounter. In fact circumstantial evidence calibrate that everything seemed to be pre-planned with the approval of the highest authority. How on earth could an operative of an authoritarian regime, dare to show such levels of irresponsibility to mess with a prime value target for the highest and mightiest authority in the regime? Most importantly, death can be unintentional due to use of third degree techniques of torture during the interrogation. But cold bloodedly dismembering the body of a victim, with a bone cutting saw, by a team equipped with scientific torture paraphernalia is not something to be dubbed as accidental.

However, no culprit will readily accept responsibility. Therefore, the Saudi regime should not be expected to candidly admit culpability. Hence the regime will go that extra mile to protect its skin. But at the altar is the future of human rights, its defenders and the image of the US and Turkey.

Though, Turkey particularly, currently, is not above board in terms of space for freedom of expression, dissenting voices and human rights. Some commentators are of the view that the news of Khashoggi’s brutal murder inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul could not have made its way to the media without the nod of the Turkish authorities.
At this point, it is also difficult to determine Turkey’s intentions. Will it take exception to this brutality as a violation of its soil’s integrity or love for human rights? Moreover, will the incident be used as a tool to settle score to influence favourable change in the Saudi regime policy towards Turkey?

But Turkey, a third world country, need not pretend to be too fastidious about human rights as the real test awaits the US. Initially, the US President Donald Trump reacted strongly to the news of Khashoggi’s alleged disappearance and murder that took place in the Saudi consulate. Soon thereafter, in his October 15, tweet he seemed swayed by the Saudi version of explanation. The tweet read, “Just spoke to the King of Saudi Arabia who denies any knowledge of whatever may have happened ‘to our Saudi Arabian citizen’. He said that they are working closely with Turkey to find answers. I am immediately sending our Secretary of State to meet with King!”

At the moment one cannot predict whether it is a change of heart or biding time to exhaust all options for the regime. Instead of making authoritarian regimes accountable, if states, particularly the US begin to use the blood of dissenters as a bargaining chip to extract policy favours, the entire world will turn into a dangerous place for dissenting voices and human rights defenders.

By exonerating the Saudi regime on ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ grounds, the US will seal the fact that human rights is no longer a cornerstone of its constitutional values, but is used selectively as a policy tool against unyielding powers and regimes.

Intrinsically states, particularly in the present post-truth era, are prone to use, abuse and compromise values for vested interests. But hopefully, human rights defenders, organisations especially the United Nations will not treat Khashoggi’s case as a sporadic individual incident but a gruesome act of human rights violation and a blatant contravention of diplomatic sanctity and immunity which can establish a dangerous precedent if left unaccountable.

Khashoggi’s case should also be taken as a wakeup call, for fresh inquires on how authoritarianism disguised as democratic states, cover up gross human rights violations by; suppressing freedom of expression, under the cover of state sovereignty and security. It is time that human rights organisations under the UN umbrella should demand a reconstitution of the legal framework to prevent nation states from violating human rights in the name of national interest, security, sovereignty and diplomatic immunity.