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U.S. Says Saudi Crown Prince MBS Approved Assassination of Khashoggi, But He Avoids Any Sanctions

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The Biden administration has released a declassified report that finds Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, responsible for the assassination of Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. But the U.S. does not plan to sanction the crown prince, though the administration has announced travel restrictions to dozens of other Saudi officials. The decision is being criticized by human rights groups and friends of the late Khashoggi. “It’s important to not point fingers but also to sanction MBS … and to treat him as the pariah he is, like Biden promised during the campaign,” says Abdullah Alaoudh, who works as a researcher for Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN, the organization founded by Khashoggi. We also speak with California Congressmember Ro Khanna, who welcomes the release of the report. “They need to follow that up with concrete action,” he says. “At the very least, MBS shouldn’t be allowed to come to the United States.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: U.S. intelligence agencies have confirmed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman directly approved an operation to assassinate Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

On Friday, the Biden administration declassified an intelligence report about the murder inside the consulate in Istanbul. But President Biden decided not to sanction the Saudi crown prince, who has been a close U.S. ally. Instead, the United States announced travel restrictions on dozens of other Saudi officials. CNN is reporting the names of three men were removed from the Khashoggi report shortly after it was first released Friday.

The United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnès Callamard, criticized the Biden administration’s response.

AGNÈS CALLAMARD: I am disappointed by the lack of material information and evidence included in that report. And I will be very disappointed if there is no action taken, having recognized the primary role played by the crown prince.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden spoke Friday to Univision and claimed he would hold Saudi Arabia accountable for human rights abuses.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We are going to hold them accountable for human rights abuses. And we’re going to make sure that they, in fact — and if they want to deal with us, they have to deal with it in a way where human rights abuses are dealt with. And we’re trying to do that across the world, but particularly here. This report has been sitting there. The last administration wouldn’t even release it. We immediately, when I got in, found the report, read it, got it and released it, released today. And it is outrageous, what happened.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two guests. Congressman Ro Khanna is a Democrat from California, member of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. And Abdullah Alaoudh is the research director in the Gulf at the organization Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN. The organization is the brainchild of Jamal Khashoggi. Alaoudh was a friend of the late Khashoggi. His father has been a held in solitary confinement in Saudi Arabia since 2017.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Abdullah Alaoudh. Can you respond to the report’s release, what you found most significant about it, and the Biden administration response?

ABDULLAH ALAOUDH: Well, thank you so much for having us. It’s a pleasure to be here again.

Well, the report was no surprise. There was no new information. We already knew that Mohammed bin Salman was implicated in the murder. We just needed that report to be released. And we think it’s a huge step toward transparency.

But also, we think it’s equally important to follow that with a step toward accountability, which is to — as we know now Mohammed bin Salman is implicated in the murder, it’s important to not just point fingers, but also to sanction MBS, Mohammed bin Salman, and to treat him as the pariah he is, like Biden promised during the campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Joe Biden speaking in November 2019 during a presidential debate.

ANDREA MITCHELL: President Trump has not punished senior Saudi leaders. Would you?

JOE BIDEN: Yes. And I said it at the time. Khashoggi was in fact murdered and dismembered, and, I believe, on the order of the crown prince. And I would make it very clear we were not going to in fact sell more weapons to them. We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are. There’s very little social redeeming value of the — in the present government in Saudi Arabia.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Ro Khanna, were you surprised by the Biden administration response? This seems to be a reversal of what candidate Joe Biden wanted to see happen.

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, candidate Biden’s statement was very strong. I’m glad that they have released the report, but they need to follow that up with concrete action. At the very least, MBS shouldn’t be allowed to come to the United States. He still has the ability to come to the United States.

They need to make it very clear that we’re going to stop any arms sales to Saudi Arabia. They have done a good thing in stopping offensive support for the war in Yemen, but it needs to go much further. And finally, they need to demand that the Saudis lift the blockade and stop funding the groups in Yemen that are fueling the civil war.

AMY GOODMAN: You say that the Biden administration has frozen the military weapons that would go directly to attack Yemen, but this isn’t permanent. Nothing — I mean, the language was there. But what has Biden actually done to stop it? And what do you understand about that freezing of the weapons, how long that will be?

REP. RO KHANNA: My understanding is that they had made it clear to the Saudis that the administration is not going to support in any way a bombing into Yemen, that any bombing into Yemen is going to be considered an offensive assault. The Saudi explanation that they’re doing that for defensive reasons isn’t going to hold water.

The challenge is that the coalition bombing in Yemen continues, even without any United States support, and that Saudis continue the blockade. They continue funding groups in Yemen that are fueling the civil war. So we have a much larger obligation to put pressure on the Saudis to bring this war to an end, which, it’s important to remind people, is the reason that Khashoggi was assassinated. He really was assassinated because of his courage in pointing out the intolerable, unconscionable suffering of people in Yemen.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this issue goes from holding the Saudi regime responsible for the dismemberment of one man, of The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, quite literally, his dismemberment, to the dismemberment of an entire nation, to Yemen, the horror of both.

Now, the Saudi Foreign Office issued a statement saying, quote, “the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia completely rejects the negative, false and unacceptable assessment in the report pertaining to the Kingdom’s leadership, and notes that the report contained inaccurate information and conclusions. … The Kingdom rejects any measure that infringes upon its leadership, sovereignty, and the independence of its judicial system.”

Abdullah Alaoudh, can you talk about what directly implicates Mohammed bin Salman, and also the timeline? It says the planning of this murder of Khashoggi goes back to, I think it was, September 28th. He was murdered on October 2nd as he walked into the Istanbul Consulate in Turkey, the Saudi Consulate, to get papers for marrying his fiancée, and was literally sawed apart.

ABDULLAH ALAOUDH: Well, first of all, the killing team and the mastermind of the killing team is the Rapid Intervention Force, that are actually a force created personally by MBS and was tasked with protecting MBS and operating under not just his watch, but under his direct orders. That’s one thing that the report of the ODNI actually confirmed.

Second, the team were actually — the team traveled with two private jets owned by MBS and was actually confiscated by MBS just a few months before the murder. And then, the same [Sky Prime], the company that was used, actually was again taken from one private individual in Saudi Arabia to MBS himself and was used in the operation.

And thirdly, the contradicting narratives of the Saudi government and MBS personally showed how, from the very beginning, this was premeditated. And sending the forensic expert with them with a bonesaw is just a material, direct evidence of their premeditation and how they preplanned the whole thing. It’s just not — it could not be an accident if you send in somebody whose sole expertise is to dismember people. This is not an accident.

AMY GOODMAN: Abdullah Alaoudh, what do you want to see happen right now? And what do you think would most affect the royal family in Saudi Arabia? What would send the message the strongest?

ABDULLAH ALAOUDH: Well, I want to make a few points here. One is that Saudi Arabia is not MBS. If they want to, as Blinken said, want to still have some kind of relationship to and partnership with Saudi Arabia, well, Saudi Arabia is not MBS. Saudi Arabia is the Saudi people in the first place, the Saudi institutions. And you can make — I mean, there are a lot of alternatives within the Saudi royal family, and all of them are actually in jail, so they can start with releasing them and protecting them. That’s one.

Second, I think sanctioning MBS is, by itself, the strongest message — one, for accountability, and this is — and rule of law and justice, and, second, for other actors within the Saudi institutions to rearrange the succession order and to have somebody who does not have blood on their hands.

And look at the MBS only in the past three years. He started the worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen by waging a war. He blockaded Qatar for almost three years. He put the prime minister of Lebanon under house arrest. He cut relationship with Canada over a tweet. He arrested prominent women human rights defenders, lawyers, scholars, economists, and put them in jail. This is only in the past three years. So, imagine, if you allow this guy to be a king and rule for the next 40 years, what would happen. It will be much more disastrous than this.

He is now just the de facto ruler and crown prince. And it’s still possible. The crown prince office, the position of the crown prince has changed four times only in the past five years, so it’s still possible. It’s something that the United States can help with rearranging the succession by sanctioning MBS and making it difficult for his team and his — you know, for his force to just use the international stage as a theater for their own butched operations.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Khanna, could you respond to that, what you think the Biden administration should do, as Biden is also addressing this today, and the kind of message this sends to the world? When, to the credit of President Biden, this report was released, the Trump administration suppressed it. But then, following up on a literally documented murder, the president moves on to say we’re going to have travel restrictions on other members of the administration.

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, I agree with what both of you have said. There is no way we can have a report released where there is direct implication of MBS ordering the brutal killing of Khashoggi — and we know all of his offenses internationally — and continue to have him be held with no accountability.

So, sanctioning him, making it clear that he’s not allowed in the United States will hopefully have an impact on the Saudis thinking about someone else in the royal family to assume leadership. That’s their decision; it’s not our decision. But our decision is to make sure that MBS is held accountable, as, I would argue, any person, head of state or senior leader around the world should be held accountable if they are directly implicated for murder and killing.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Abdullah Alaoudh, if you can describe where your father is right now and why he has been imprisoned?

ABDULLAH ALAOUDH: He is in solitary confinement since September 2017. They arrested him a few hours after he tweeted calling for reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They actually tortured him. They deprived him from medications and sleep for a very long time, until he went really, really sick and was hospitalized a few times, lost half of his hearing and half of his vision because of medical negligence. He was mistreated all along.

All the family is banned from traveling. Nineteen members of my own family were banned from traveling, and used against me to intimidate me and threaten me abroad. And also they froze my account and froze my passport and asked me to go back to Saudi Arabia.

They transferred my father to the specialized criminal court, and they charged him with 37 charges, including corrupting Earth by seeking to change the Saudi monarchy into democracy and having books that are banned in the kingdom and being sarcastic about the government achievements, and very preposterous charges like these. And they are seeking the death penalty, and still seeking the death penalty, against him because of these actions.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, we will continue to follow your father’s case, as well. Abdullah Alaoudh, I want to thank you for being with us, director for the Gulf at DAWN — that’s Democracy for the Arab World Now — speaking to us from Washington, D.C., a friend of the late Saudi Arabian journalist and dissident, activist, Jamal Khashoggi. And, Ro Khanna, we’d like to ask you to stay with us, as we’re going to move on to talk about — well, while President Biden is letting MBS get away with murder, he’s sending a very different message to Iran. We’ll talk about the bombing, the U.S. bombing, in Syria. Stay with us.

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