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Mass Execution in Saudi Arabia as MBS Faces Khashoggi Murder Lawsuit & U.S. Keeps Backing War on Yemen

Web ExclusiveMarch 15, 2022
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In Part 2 of our interview with Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN, she describes the organization’s civil lawsuit against Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, who was assassinated in the Saudi Consulate in Turkey in 2018 and was also DAWN’s founder. She also discusses the world’s worst humanitarian crisis that is unfolding in Yemen, seven years into the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war and blockade. “This is a good moment to draw out the comparisons, the strong, strong parallels between what’s happening in Yemen and what’s happening in Ukraine,” says Whitson. In the first part of our interview, Whitson discusses the kingdom’s largest mass execution in its modern history, when it put 81 men to death within a span of just 24 hours on Saturday.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we bring you Part 2 of our interview with Sarah Leah Whitson, who heads up the group DAWN, which was founded by Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered by Saudi agents in a consulate in Turkey. We spoke earlier about how the Biden administration is refusing to directly condemn Saudi Arabia for executing 81 men in its largest mass execution ever. And as we continue our interview with Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of DAWN — that’s Democracy for the Arab World Now — we look at how U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is planning to travel to Saudi Arabia for talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to push the world’s top oil exporter for increased output, as he called on the West to end its addiction to Russian fuel. Axios is now reporting that U.S. officials have been holding talks with Saudi officials about a possible visit by President Biden to Saudi Arabia to discuss global oil supply and, quote, “help repair relations.” The Wall Street Journal reports Saudi Arabia has also invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit the kingdom.

Sarah Leah Whitson, you are deeply involved with the group. You head the group that was founded by the murdered Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. Can you start off by talking more about the possibility that President Biden, like President Trump before him — it’s not that President Obama didn’t do this also — will go to Saudi Arabia?

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, I can’t confirm what’s been reported in The Wall Street Journal. I have heard from some sources in the State Department that it’s not true that the White House has asked for a meeting with Mohammed bin Salman or offered to travel there. I think we should wait to see the outcome of that, given that there has been so much pushback from private sources in the State Department and White House against what’s being reported by The Wall Street Journal and others. So, we will have to see. Nevertheless, the Biden administration has deployed its top officials to meet with Mohammed bin Salman, including Brett McGurk, of course, in his recent trip there, because they feel that they need Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salman at this moment in time, particularly to persuade him to increase oil output to make up for the shock of the sanctions on Russia and the decrease in Russian supply that has driven up oil prices globally.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about something we also talked about in Part 1, which is the lawsuit you’ve brought on behalf of the fiancée of Khashoggi around his murder, the lawsuit that directly targets Mohammed bin Salman? Of all the issues in the world, it seems that this is something he is deeply concerned about. Explain why and the scope of the suit.

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Sure. So, the lawsuit is a joint lawsuit. DAWN is a plaintiff, and Hatice Cengiz is a plaintiff. And we are suing under the Alien Tort Claims Act, the Torture Victims Prevention Act, as well as state laws, for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, both the former founder, executive director of our organization and, of course, Hatice Cengiz’s husband under Turkish law. These U.S. laws allow us to sue, a civil suit for damages against Mohammed bin Salman as an individual, as well as the other individuals, his accomplices for the murder of Khashoggi.

Now, Saudi Arabia’s — or, I should say, Mohammed bin Salman’s lawyers have filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, challenging the jurisdiction of our courts to hear this, claiming that he has sovereign immunity, even though he is not king. But we know that this is extremely sensitive and important for Mohammed bin Salman, because we have essentially travel banned him. He has not shown his face in the United States since the murder and since our lawsuit. There are two other civil lawsuits against him, one for the attempted murder of Saad al-Jabri, former Saudi official, as well as for the hacking of the phone, harassment and intimidation of Ghada Oueiss, an Al Jazeera journalist who’s filed a lawsuit in Florida.

Mohammed bin Salman has demanded that the Biden administration make a request for immunity from the courts for him, under the principle of sovereign immunity, even though the Biden administration has refused to do that, just as even the Trump administration refused to do that, because he is not king and he is not the sovereign. Mohammed bin Salman is now holding the price of oil, the increased oil output that Biden so desperately wants, hostage, saying a condition is that he grant him immunity from these lawsuits. He wants him to improperly interfere in the American judicial process to make an illegitimate request for immunity to block these lawsuits.

He can make these lawsuits go away. I mean, these are civil lawsuits. He can choose to settle them for the damages that we seek. They are tremendously important, perhaps the only real accountability, judicial accountability, we are going to have against Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of Khashoggi, and he should be forced to pay. It would be horrible if the Biden administration interfered in this lawsuit in any way, including by granting this requested immunity. We will see what happens. We will see how the judge decides on Mohammed bin Salman’s motion to dismiss. But he has been properly served, and this case is ongoing.

AMY GOODMAN: For people who have not been paying attention to this, can you explain what you know happened to Jamal Khashoggi?

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, what we know, and it has been documented by the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, as well as by our own intelligence services, who concluded that Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, is that, in fact, Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, used planes at his service, owned by the Saudi authorities — confiscated, I should say, by the Saudi authorities — to transport his hitmen to Istanbul, after stopping in Egypt to pick up the poisonous materials they injected him with — that has been documented, as well — to the consulate in Istanbul, where Jamal Khashoggi went to obtain the special papers he needed to document his divorce from his wife in Saudi Arabia so that he can marry Hatice.

Hatice was waiting outside the consulate in Istanbul when he was detained and murdered. I was in touch with Hatice while she was waiting outside the consulate trying to figure out what to do. And we were the first to alert the international community to the fact that he had not emerged. And my conclusion immediately at the time was that they had probably killed him, since he would not agree to be kidnapped. It’s clear that they tried to persuade him, according to the leaked recordings, because of the Saudi Consulate being bugged by the Turkish authorities — that they did try to force him to leave the consulate so they could kidnap him back to Saudi Arabia. When he resisted that, they immediately injected him with the poison, chopped up his body and burned him in what we believe to be a backyard stove of the Saudi consul in Istanbul.

The Saudis have refused to cooperate with any international investigation. There is a Turkish criminal investigation underway, but we expect that to be wound down and disappeared. As the Turkish government now seeks a rapprochement with the Saudi government, given its desperate economy, free fall of the Turkish economy, and President Erdogan has, of course, said that he wants to travel to Saudi Arabia himself. So that lawsuit is basically on its last legs. And that’s why our lawsuit for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi is really the last judicial effort standing to hold Mohammed bin Salman judicially accountable for the murder of Khashoggi.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Sarah Leah, have you been facing any pressure from the Biden administration, as they desperately seek to replace the Russian oil with sources elsewhere, perhaps Saudi Arabia, to squelch this lawsuit?

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: No, we have not faced any such pressure from the Biden administration. But we have not gotten the protection for our staff and our supporters that we need. We have not gotten the Biden administration to sanction the Saudi officials who were involved in the murder of our founder, including not just Mohammed bin Salman but others. They have not used the Khashoggi ban that they actually put forward in the wake of Jamal’s murder as a consolation prize, to promise that they would sanction other attacks on activists and dissidents outside of the country. And so, we are very disappointed that they have not done more to support our organization and to support our work. We are under constant attack by trolls. We know that the Saudi government has pressured our supporters who are abroad, and people are quite fearful. We’re not. We’re not fearful. But we could definitely use a lot more support.

And I think what I want to remind the Biden administration is that Mohammed bin Salman can make this lawsuit go away by providing the damages that we’re seeking, in a private settlement, if they wish. But we need to see punishment. We need to see compensation for this horrific crime, and we are going to continue to demand it as long as we can in our courts of law.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you: Has the Biden administration released all the information that the U.S. government knows about how Jamal Khashoggi was murdered on October 2nd, 2018? As we know, the CIA did a deep investigation of this.

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: No, they have not. And there were a number of FOIA lawsuits. There is still a pending FOIA lawsuit against the Biden administration — it was actually initially brought against the Trump administration — to ask them to release not only the information that they gathered about the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, but what American officials knew and when they knew it. We know that Jared Kushner was in close contact with Mohammed bin Salman. We know that Jared Kushner provided Mohammed bin Salman with a list of people who had come to the State Department and the White House. And we are guessing that that probably included — may have included Jamal Khashoggi’s name, of Saudi activists and others who had spoken with the State Department, the White House and the Congress about the ongoing abuses in the country. How much did U.S. officials know about the threat to Jamal before he was murdered, they still have not disclosed. Who was in contact with Mohammed bin Salman and his cronies in advance, during and after the murder, we still don’t know. We do know what President Trump told us, which is that we saved his ass. We saved Mohammed bin Salman from further exposure and accountability in the wake of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. We have yet to learn exactly what the role of the United States and its officials were, what they could have done to prevent this murder of an American resident.

And, by the way, this stuff is still ongoing. The American government just arrested an Egyptian spy, an American who was spying on Egyptians in New York, in the tri-state area, in a clear effort to harass, intimidate, threaten Egyptian political exiles. But have they sanctioned any Egyptian officials yet for basically the same thing that Mohammed bin Salman did to Saudi exiles and dissidents? They haven’t. They have taken no action yet against the Egyptian government for the spying in America against Egyptians in our country.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to ask you about Mohammed bin Salman’s comments around the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. He recently told The Atlantic, quote — this is MBS — “If that’s the way we did things, Khashoggi would not even be among the top 1,000 people on the list. If you’re going to go for another operation like that, for another person, it’s got to be professional and it’s got to be one of the top 1,000,” the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said. Your response, Sarah Leah Whitson?

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, I would say he’s not only a lying liar, but he’s an incompetent, bumbling, lying liar, given the admission that that very quote contains. We know that the Saudi government tried to lie and cover up about its fiasco in murdering Jamal Khashoggi, making it a mockery of the entire planet, trotting out someone dressed in Jamal’s clothes to pretend he had left the consulate, leak after leak exposing them for their pathetic, bumbling hit job, which was so easily exposed to the entire world. So we know not to take their words as truth. We know not to take Mohammed bin Salman’s word as truth.

Keep in mind that the texts and efforts of Mohammed bin Salman to woo Jamal back to Saudi Arabia, making all kinds of promises to him that he would be allowed to write again in the kingdom, that’s all well documented. We know that Mohammed bin Salman was razor focused on Jamal Khashoggi because of the prominence he had writing in The Washington Post and because of this organization that he had launched, which was very much focused on being a voice in Washington, D.C., about what was happening in Saudi Arabia and demanding that U.S. policy change to address the crimes of the Saudi government.

But what’s further is, again, the way that Mohammed bin Salman’s warped, sociopathic mind works, he doesn’t see a problem with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The only problem he sees is how — in fact, he concedes what a bumbling operation and what an unprofessional operation he was, and wishes and promises that future operations will be more professional. So there’s a very clear warning to others outside the country still. Obviously, he’s continuing to execute people, travel ban, jail, torture people within the country, but it’s a very clear threat to people outside the country. He has learned nothing from the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

And that’s why our lawsuit is so important. We need to make this guy pay. What our government, what the American government has failed to do, to punish him for this heinous act against someone who was living in our country, someone who was wooed to leave America in order to go to his death in the Saudi Consulate, we can’t have that happen again. This is why our organization is fighting for accountability. And I hope folks will support us, and I hope folks will check out our work on our website, dawnmena.org.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Sarah Leah Whitson — move from the dismemberment of a man, a literal dismemberment, hacked to death in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, to the dismemberment of a nation. And that is Yemen. And I don’t say this glibly or lightly. I mean, the world has seen the descriptions of what happened to Jamal Khashoggi and is horrified, because you can imagine what this looks like, if, I mean, however heinous. We don’t see as clearly what is happening to an entire country, to Yemen. The United Nations warns acute cases of hunger in Yemen have reached an unprecedented level, with over 160,000 people likely to experience famine over the next half-year. The U.N. says more than 17 million people in Yemen are currently in need of food assistance, with persistent high levels of acute malnutrition among children under the age of 5, the stark warning coming ahead of a donors conference in Yemen, Yemen suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, seven years after the Saudi-led coalition launched its war and blockade of Yemen, backed by arms sales and technical assistance from the United States and allies, including France and the United Kingdom. So, let’s talk about Yemen, Mohammed bin Salman and the United States right now. How is it possible that this continues with U.S. support?

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: It’s mind-boggling. And it’s mind-boggling that Mohammed bin Salman has actually said that he will not increase oil production unless the U.S. increases its support for the war in Yemen. Basically, the Biden administration is bargaining to do more to save the children of Ukraine by massacring more children in Yemen. That is the formula. And that’s why it’s just — it’s so discombobulating to see Secretary Blinken and President Biden falling over themselves to decry Russian atrocities in Ukraine while they support very similar, if not worse — certainly, to date, worse — atrocities by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen.

We have to be very clear: Saudi and UAE are starving the people of Yemen with a seven-year air, land and sea blockade that has eviscerated the country’s ability to import food, medicine and fuel. Yemen is a country that imports over 90% of its food. Of course people are starving when Saudi and UAE impose a total blockade on the country. Of course people are starving when sanctions continue to be in place. They haven’t entirely been lifted. The U.S. just redesignated so-called Houthi financiers, that will further debilitate the ability of the country to import even legitimate products like fuel and food and medicine imports.

What the Biden administration has now done is what even the Trump administration refused to do, which is reengage as a party of the conflict, putting American troops on the line as part of the fighting effort, as part of the war, making them legitimate military targets in the UAE, where U.S. forces from the military base in the UAE have actively participated in firing Patriot missiles against the Houthis in Yemen, ostensibly to defend the UAE from incoming Houthi missiles. But really the best way for the UAE to protect itself is to stop supporting proxy forces, to stop arming and funding proxy forces, which it dramatically increased in doing in the beginning of this year, and to end its blockade of Yemen. Same goes for Saudi Arabia. This is a dead-end war.

Best news I heard this morning: Reportedly, the Saudis have invited Houthi representatives for talks to Riyadh. I don’t know if the Houthis will trust this offer. There have been prior offers like this. But the whole world knows that the Saudis and the Emiratis are not going to win this war. It’s been seven years. They thought it was going to take weeks. What a joke. They have decimated this country.

And if the United States expects the entire world, which has not gone along, to sanction Russia, to buy what it’s selling in terms of defending Ukraine, then it’s got to stop supporting the war in Yemen, because the world sees this. The world sees that when the United States talks about sovereignty and violence and not attempting to extract concessions by force, it’s got to follow, to talk the talk in Yemen, not just tell the world what to do in Ukraine, because the world is not buying it. This is why there is not more support for the war against Russia in Ukraine.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, maybe that’s where you’ve got it wrong, when you say the world sees. I think the world doesn’t see the way it sees what’s happening in Ukraine right now. I want to read a tweet from CodePink. “Why is there such a disparity between coverage of the war on Ukraine vs. the war on Yemen? Coverage of Yemen reveals the US and UK’s complicity in creating the humanitarian crisis. Coverage of Ukraine constructs the US, the UK, & their allies as the 'saviors of democracy.'” So, let’s talk about the difference. I mean, you have for example, CNN anchors — and this is not wrong. Perhaps it should be a model of coverage of war in so many different cities, in Ukraine, so you see the real effects of what war looks like, feels like, smells like, the destruction of hospitals, the bombing of schools, and people feel it viscerally. Could you imagine if you had those same hosts in Sana’a, in Aden, in other places in Yemen each day to feel this humanitarian catastrophe, the worst in the world? Can you talk about that, the actual lack of coverage of what’s happening on the ground in Yemen, so the world doesn’t respond, right? As Noam Chomsky says, the media manufactures consent for war, and lets people know what’s happening so they can respond.

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: There are three elements to this, Amy. The first is the lack of coverage is not an accident. It is by design. Saudi and the UAE have done everything they can to block international media, block international human rights investigators, including myself, from traveling to Yemen. When the war started, we — when I was at Human Rights Watch, we were on the ground in Yemen. We were able to travel to Yemen to document what was happening, to document the destruction, to interview victims. The Saudis made that increasingly difficult, including banning, forcibly banning, by threatening to withdraw funds from U.N. planes that were still traveling to Yemen and taking in humanitarian organizations. So, the Saudis, they understand the power of the media. They understand the power of the coverage that you described. And that’s why they have done everything they can to make it impossible. It is so difficult for international media to get anywhere near the fighting in Yemen. Aden remains accessible, but you have to take a boat from Djibouti to get there. It’s virtually impossible to fly into the country. So, the restrictions on getting in for international media are tremendous, versus, of course, Ukraine, where anybody can go in freely to document what’s happening.

The second is just the factor of time. The media jumps from one crisis to another. The Ukraine crisis is new. The Yemen crisis is old. It’s been seven years. And we have seen, time and again, how the media loses interest and has to move on to the next thing. So there’s an attention span issue.

And finally, there is the inherent racism that we see and that we’ve seen on such grotesque display by the Western media, talking about the white and blue-eyed, blond-haired Ukrainians who are somehow different. Their refugee status is different. Their suffering is different. They’re civilized people. They’re European people. And so there is an inherent bias in the Western media, in particular, who are the bulk of those present in Ukraine, to sympathize with, to feel compassion and suffering for Ukrainians under bombardment, but not the same suffering, not the same pain for Yemenis under bombardment, for Yemenis who are literally being starved to death. And I think this is a good moment for everyone in the media to check their biases, to really think about why that is and what they can do to fix it. I would hope that the international media uses this as an opportunity to redouble its efforts to travel to Yemen and see for itself. When they have shown up, as the BBC did last year in some unbelievable footage, unbelievable coverage, it did make a difference. And I really think and hope and I wish that the international media spends just a fraction of the effort they’re making now to cover Ukraine to get into Yemen, to show the world what’s happening. This is a good moment to draw out the comparisons, the strong, strong parallels between what’s happening in Yemen and what’s happening in Ukraine.

AMY GOODMAN: Just to be clear, I don’t think you’re saying, Sarah Leah, that the blond-haired, blue-eyed children of Ukraine do not deserve sympathy, because of course they do, but it should be the model of sympathy for children all over the world, no matter what their hair, eye and skin color. And that’s very different, actually, than how the media deals with them. I mean, major international news outlets are facing backlash over the racist comments made by correspondents comparing the invasion of Ukraine to conflicts in Iraq, in Afghanistan, Palestine and other regions outside of Europe. Correspondents from Al Jazeera English, The Telegraph, CBS News and others have suggested Ukrainians and their resistance are more worthy of sympathy because they’re, quote, “civilized” and white. For example, this is Charlie D’Agata, who is the senior correspondent of CBS News, speaking on air late last month.

CHARLIE D’AGATA: This isn’t a place, with all due respect, you know, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. You know, this is a relatively civilized, relatively European — I have to choose those words carefully, too — city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Sarah Leah Whitson, I mean, it isn’t even subtle here. If you could respond?

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: You know, it’s just mind-boggling, you know, in a continent, in Europe, that has seen more mass death and destruction than pretty much anywhere else in the world, if you start from World War I or World War II, you know, the massacres of Stalin and Hitler, not to mention more recent conflicts in Kosovo and the former Yugoslavia. It’s just — it’s mind-boggling. But there is a normalization of the suffering of Black and Brown people in the rest of the world, and the fact that we are particularly horrified when we see that happening so close to Western Europe and places that have otherwise managed to avoid the pain and suffering that those very same countries have been causing in other places. So, it’s one thing when the U.S.-led War in Iraq and the U.S.-led War in Afghanistan decimates Black and Brown people in these countries with American bombs, with British bombs, with French bombs, including their military and political support, but somehow it’s very, very different when those weapons, when international weapons of destruction, are used in Europe. It’s a really, really troubling, but very revealing statement that he made.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Sarah Leah Whitson, I wanted to ask you about Congress and what it’s doing about Yemen right now, because this isn’t just the Saudi-UAE-led attack on Yemen. It is supplied militarily and helped in its funding by the United States. Can you talk about what’s happening in Congress?

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Sure. So, while, under the Trump administration, the U.S. Congress, in a remarkable show of bipartisan support, Republican and Democrat, voted three times to ban U.S. support for the war in Yemen and ban arms sales to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen, under the Biden administration they approved arms sales to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen, using the handy fig leaf of calling them defensive weapons. It’s quite disappointing, if not disgusting, that even members of Congress, like Chris Murphy, who have been so vocal in condemning the war in Yemen and so vocal in condemning arms sales to Yemen, and even vowing that he would not support arms sales to Yemen, voted in support of arms sales to Yemen that the Biden administration put forward.

I think, unfortunately, it reveals a great deal about the conflict of interest within the U.S. government that is so beholden to the defense industry and defense industry profits and defense industry employment, both before and after — they are part of the government — but as well as the notion that we must continue to cajole the Saudi Arabians for acquiescence to a new arms deal with Iran, or now for increasing oil production, by doing what they want and sacrificing Yemen and the Yemeni people if we have to. There are efforts to introduce a new war powers resolution, led by, among others, Representative Ro Khanna, that would resubmit the renewed, reengaged American fighting in the Yemen war to a congressional war powers resolution and war powers approval. But I’m not entirely confident that that will pass.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you explain exactly what is the U.S. role in the attack, the decimation of Yemen?

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Sure, it’s multifold. Number one, of course, is the provision of American weapons. They are the bulk of the weapons purchased by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and those are the weapons that are landing on the heads of Yemeni children, Yemeni women, Yemeni homes, Yemeni farms, Yemeni schools, Yemeni universities. This is how this country is being destroyed, with American weapons. In addition, there has been years of so-called intelligence support — I should say dumbness support — in supposedly helping the Saudis carry out their targeting and decimation and bombardment, which of course has been wildly indiscriminate, because the Saudis insist on flying their planes so high, to avoid being shot, that they really can’t target anything with any sort of precision. And now we have the direct engagement of U.S. forces, as I was mentioning, in the UAE to support Emirati forces to fire missiles back at incoming Houthi missiles. So the United States is directly a party to this conflict again, and its troops are at risk in the UAE as parties to the war. And it’s just remarkable to me that President Biden would endanger Americans this way.

AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Leah Whitson, I want to thank you for being with us. Sarah Leah Whitson is executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN. It was founded by the murdered Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. To see Part 1 of our discussion with Sarah Leah Whitson, you can go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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