In its own twisted way, Saudi Arabia is trying to demonstrate that it is taking the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi seriously. That’s one way to interpret this week’s announcement from the Saudi prosecutor that he will seek the death penalty for five of the late columnist’s murderers, and jail time for six others.
One can almost understand this approach. Remember all of the shabby lies Saudi officials told about Khashoggi over the last six weeks. First they said he had walked out of the Istanbul consulate where he was murdered. Then they said the 60-year-old journalist had died in a fistfight with Saudi officials.
The latest line from the prosecutor is that he was injected with a drug that killed him after a struggle with consulate officials in an operation meant to abduct him and bring him to Saudi Arabia.
This story sounds more plausible than the earlier ones. It is nonetheless still fishy — and still outrageous. The Saudi prosecutor maintains that the entire operation was ordered by an intelligence official, not Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
There are good reasons to believe the crown prince ordered this operation. The New York Times, for example, has reported that U.S. intelligence agencies have circumstantial evidence pointing to Crown Prince Mohammed, such as intercepts of Saudi officials discussing it, and a member of his personal security detail was involved in the operation.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (a paranoid autocrat in his own right) has said the crime was ordered at very highest levels of Saudi state.
And while Erdogan’s word alone is not to be trusted, his spies have recordings and other evidence, which they have strategically deployed to keep the murder in the news.
It’s tempting to accept the latest Saudi line as a necessary falsehood. The crown prince, after all, is an important ally of the West. And while great powers like China and Russia don’t care if their friends do terrible things, America and Europe do.
They cannot stand by a leader who acts like Al Pacino in that scene from "Scarface," inviting the world to take a look at the bad guy.
Nonetheless, the big show of coming indictments just compounds the cruelty of Khashoggi’s murder. It’s more likely than not that the five men the prosecutor seeks to punish with the ultimate sentence were acting on the crown prince’s orders. How would their deaths count as justice for Khashoggi if the man who ordered his murder is never charged?
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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