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A Year After Jamal Khashoggi’s Assassination, The War On Truth Continues

By: Kyoko Thompson, staff writer at RightsViews

“A commission is coming from Saudi Arabia tomorrow; they have something to do in the Consulate. They will have something to do on my floor in the office.” – October 1 2018, 21:48

At 1:15 PM on Tuesday, October 2, 2018, Washington Post contributor and longtime journalist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, and was never seen again. His death was not the first of its kind. According to the United Nations, more than one thousand journalists have been murdered since 2006. Yet it drew international attention from governments and individuals alike, many of whom demanded justice. The events that followed challenged the limits of international law and U.S. foreign policy. One year later, an investigation yields more questions than answers, such as: What does justice for Khashoggi look like? Is his death a manifestation of a deeper, more insidious trend? And: What is the future of free speech in an era where authoritarianism and misinformation are not an outlier, but the norm?

 

“He has arrived.” – October 2, 2018; 13:13

 

In November 2018, Turkey shared audio of Jamal Khashoggi’s October 2nd visit to the Saudi consulate with Britain, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. In it, Saudi officials can be heard discussing Khashoggi’s imminent arrival and assassination. The recordings, obtained from inside the consulate itself, provide gruesome confirmation of what was already strongly suspected by journalists and politicians alike: Jamal Khashoggi was lured to the consulate under the false pretense of obtaining documents required for his marriage to then-fiancee Hatice Cengiz, and brutally executed, dismembered, and disposed of by Saudi authorities. 

Much of the narrative available to the public today is the result of the efforts of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Dr. Agnes Callamard—who, with the assistance of the recordings, consulate security footage, and Turkish authorities, was able to piece together the events immediately leading up to, and following, Khashoggi’s death. An expert in human rights, Dr. Callamard possesses extensive experience in the field, having previously worked with Amnesty International, Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP), and ARTICLE 19. In December 2018, she began a six-month investigation that culminated in the release of her report on the inquiry into the unlawful death of Jamal Khashoggi at the 41st session of the Human Rights Council in June of this year. Her findings, which criticize the international response to Khashoggi’s murder—including the response of Saudi and U.S. officials—shed a harsh light on the consequences of free speech, and the limitations of international law. Her official opinion? This was a state-sanctioned killing. 

While Saudi authorities have continued to insist that Khashoggi’s death was a domestic matter, “I completely disagree with this analysis,” said Dr. Callamard at an event at Columbia Law School last month. On the contrary, she says, Khashoggi was murdered by fifteen Saudi officials—named in her report—“fourteen of whom in my opinion have worked together before.” And, while she did not assign individual liability, she did strongly assert that Khashoggi’s death “constituted an extrajudicial killing for which the State of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible.” Moreover, the killing—and Saudi Arabia’s procedural and official response to it—violated multiple international laws, including the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. According to Dr. Callamard, the impact is clear: this was a crime “of such a nature, in my view, that it qualified as an international crime, and therefore that it could lead to universal jurisdiction.” 

 

“How could this happen in an embassy?” – Jamal Khashoggi, October 2, 2018; 13:22

 

Khashoggi, who left Saudi Arabia in self-imposed exile in September of 2017, was a well known Saudi dissident and critic of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. He claimed that the government had banned him from using Twitter and pressured his publishers to fire him; and in fact his column in Al-Hayat, a popular Arabic daily, was canceled earlier that year. Determined not to be censored, Khashoggi moved to the United States so that he might continue to write for the Washington Post. In an opinion piece shortly after, he wrote “I have made a different choice now. I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice. To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. I can speak when so many cannot. I want you to know that Saudi Arabia has not always been as it is now. We Saudis deserve better.” 

Human Rights Watch has confirmed that Saudi Arabia has a history of stifling free expression. In 2015 alone, more than six writers and advocates were arrested and punished for peacefully expressing their opinions. According to Human Rights Watch, “One was sentenced to death and the others to lengthy prison terms. At least four were also banned from traveling abroad for five to 10 years.” Usually, the sort of opinions that cause pushback from the Saudi government are those that characterize it, or its leadership, unfavorably. Khashoggi, however, believed he was being silenced because of remarks he made at an event in November of 2016. At the event—a panel discussion at the Washington Institute for the Near East—Khashoggi warned that Saudi Arabia should be wary of a Trump presidency because his stances on the Middle East were contradictory, which wasn’t likely to change. Ironically, Trump has actually remained steadfastly supportive of Saudi Arabia since taking office—so supportive, in fact, that he turned a blind eye to Khashoggi’s murder.

Trump and Prince bin Salman in 2017

Nearly two months after Kashoggi’s disappearance and after weeks of seeming to avoid commenting on the incident, President Donald Trump finally announced that he was “standing with Saudi Arabia.” In many ways, this is not surprising; according to the Council on Foreign Relations, Saudi Arabia is a “critical strategic partner in the region,” and the countries’ cooperation in mutual business and security interests survived even 9/11.  In his statement, issued in November 2018, Trump cited mainly economic reasons—not the least of which was oil—for his continued support of a state that even the CIA concluded ordered the extrajudicial killing and dismemberment of a U.S. resident and Washington Post journalist. “After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States.”

If Donald Trump was to radically diverge from the course set by previous administrations and stand against Saudi Arabia, one imagines that it would not be spurred by the untimely death of a journalist. He has, after all, shown little respect for journalists and their trade. Notorious for denouncing publications that describe him unfavorably, Trump has referenced “fake news” in his Tweets no less than 578 times since winning the 2016 presidential election—that’s once every two days. Perhaps even more appallingly, on October 24th, 2019, Trump canceled subscriptions to two publications that will henceforth no longer be delivered to the White House. White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham defended the decision, saying that “hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars will be saved” as the administration moves to force other federal agencies to cancel their subscriptions, as well. The publications that were banned? The New York Times and the Washington Post—two publications that frequently criticize Trump and his administration (the infamous September 2018 op-ed in The New York Times is a rather memorable example). 

Is it a coincidence that the very publication Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist whose government made numerous attempts to silence before murdering him in cold blood, contributed to is one which Trump himself has slandered and suppressed? Maybe. It is certainly eerie, though, that months before Khashoggi’s death, in February of 2017, the newspaper—which has not had an official slogan since its founding in 1877—changed its headline to “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward said it wasn’t so much a response to Trump as it was about “the dangers of secrecy in government, which is what I worry about most.” In fact, Woodward credits federal judge Damon J. Keith for the slogan. Keith wrote “Democracies die behind closed doors” in his 2002 ruling on Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, which centered around closing immigration cases off from the press and public if they were of special interest to national security. He continued, “The First Amendment, through a free press, protects the people’s right to know that their government acts fairly, lawfully, and accurately…When government begins closing doors, it selectively controls information rightfully belonging to the people. Selective information is misinformation.” 

Judge Damon Keith passed away earlier this year, but his contributions to the law, civil rights, and free expression endure; and so do his parallels to today’s events. Because, you see, Judge Keith was famously sued personally by President Richard Nixon over his 1971 ruling against warrantless wiretaps—the sort of warrantless wiretaps used in the Watergate break-in a year later. Nixon, the president who used executive privilege to defy subpoenas, concealed information from Congress, and fired those that opposed him. The president whose close advisors were indicted for obstruction of justice. The president who was certain to be impeached in the House after a single, revelatory phone call. 

Free expression is a human right. It is protected in international human rights instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,  the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, among a plethora of others. Its significance is explicitly described and protected in documents such as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights General Comment No. 10, 11, and 34; not to mention the U.S. Constitution. So important is free expression, says the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), that without it, no liberty is secure; without it, “other fundamental rights, like the right to vote, would wither and die.”

There is no denying it: the United States is at war with information. Perhaps it always was. From Russia’s campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election to Mark Zuckerberg’s and Rupert Murdoch’s meetings with Trump officials, information is actively hidden, obscured, and weaponized by those in power at great risk to our Republic. And on the front lines of this battle are the warriors of free expression; that human right upon which so many others precariously stand. Warriors like Jamal Khashoggi—activists, advocates, and journalists. Courageous individuals who face the darkest of dark, where democracies go to die, and dare to turn on a light.

“The stout man with the gray goatee and the gentle demeanor dared to disagree with his country’s government. He told the world the truth about its brutality toward those who would speak out. And he was murdered for it.” 

– Karl Vick, Time Magazine, 2018 “The Guardians and the War on Truth”

What of those who stood by and watched? Reckoning with Racial Injustice in the U.S.

By Olivia Heffernan, a master’s candidate at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs 

“If you want the American dream, go to Canada,” Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, told audience members during Thursday night’s lecture, “Reckoning with Racial Injustice in the United States,” hosted by NYU Law School’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice and the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ).

Walker and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund Sherrilyn Ifill engaged in a provocative conversation moderated by David Tolbert, president of ICTJ. Tolbert began the panel by stressing the importance of having “unsettling dialogues” among groups at opposite ends of the justice spectrum in order to foster innovative thinking, understanding, and eventually action. Coinciding with the one-year anniversary of Trump’s election, a discussion about truth, justice and reconciliation felt particularly pertinent given the President’s record on racial injustice. Trump’s recalcitrant response to Charlottesville and his public condemnations of immigrants have exacerbated racial tensions in the United States, in many ways emboldening white supremacists to act in ways previously deemed inappropriate. CNN reports that 60 percent of Americans believe racism to be a problem in the U.S., an increase of 10 percent since 2009.  

Asked to address the structural causes behind racial injustice in the United States, Walker pointed to the United States’ desperate need to display a narrative of “exceptionalism,” which has formed a history based on lies. The failure of the United States to acknowledge a history plagued by injustice, for example, has impaired the country from making any progress, he said. Truth and reconciliation requires recognizing the existence of wrongs and accepting responsibility for them. There is no clarity without truth. Furthermore, in order to remediate racial discrimination, we must no longer see racism as solely affecting African Americans, but rather as a pervasive injustice that affects every person and as a threat to our democracy.

The same CNN report mentioned above also found that “87 percent of black Americans say black people face a lot of discrimination in the United States, but only 49 percent of white Americans say the same thing.” This large discrepancy demonstrates the unwillingness of many white Americans to admit to widespread racial intolerance even in the presence of clear evidence.

A lecture on racial injustice in the United States was hosted by NYU Law School and the International Center for Transitional Justice. // NYU CHR&GJ

Similarly, Ifill stressed the importance of truth telling in the process of reconciling our past and present. We must undo the mythologies surrounding racial violence and look at the role of the average person in either perpetuating or rejecting discrimination. “What of the crowd? What of the people who watched?” she asked, making the point that silence or inaction in cases of racial discrimination is another form of complicity. Shame and fear produce silence, and in silence lies develop, along with a refusal to acknowledge and apologize, she said.

The panel agreed that public education and truth telling are prerequisites to precipitate activism and real reform. Justice and reconciliation are processes that begin with confronting the truth, Ifill said, followed by thinking about who you are in relation to that truth and ending with a decision about what to do with that truth and your relation to it.

In human rights theory and practice, justice and reconciliation are means through which parties reckon with past injustice, whether that be something as widespread as genocide or more micro-level disputes among individuals. Increasingly, human rights theorists have turned to reconciliation methods such as truth commissions, as seen in South Africa post-apartheid, or Gacaca Courts used after the Rwandan genocide, and more recently, through restorative justice in mediating criminal court cases and reparations to the families of former slaves of Georgetown University, for example. To demonstrate the value of reconciliation in its aim to address historical wrongs as means of facilitating present-day conflict resolution, Institute for the Study of Human Rights director Elazar Barkan’s article, “Truth and Reconciliation in History,” provides three case studies that trace the origins of reconciliation and its effectiveness in creating a shared narrative across country and ethnic boundaries.

When speaking truth to power, we must take into account the environment and institutions that enable discrimination, whether racial, economic or religion-based. Ifill urged the audience to not accept the current state of inequality and prejudice as inevitable. Police brutality and an unjust criminal justice system from Eric Garner to the Central Park Five are direct products of decisions we have made and the structures we have created that perpetuate them. In other words, our challenge is not only racism, it is also elitism and classism and the ubiquitous trends that enable widespread inequality.

Fortunately, Walker has hope, noting that he believes where we are now is the closest we have come to having a national conversation about race. So, let’s not run to Canada quite yet.

Olivia Heffernan is a student at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs concentrating in social and urban policy and specializing in journalism. She is president of the Criminal Justice Reform Working Group (CJR) and has previously worked for human rights-related nonprofits. Olivia is originally from Washington, D.C., but she has spent multiple years living abroad.

Trump and Erdogan: Too Much in Common

By Ariella Lang, Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University

In President Trump’s recent meeting with Turkey’s President Erdogan, Trump said nothing about the authoritarian crackdown currently underway in Turkey, nor did he condemn the attack by armed members of Erdogan’s security team on protestors outside the Turkish embassy in Washington, D.C., in which American Diplomatic Security officers were assaulted and nine people were hospitalized. President Erdogan apparently watched the melee unfold from the embassy steps.

The same week that these events unfolded in D.C., the summary judgement and sentencing was handed down in a Turkish court with regard to the case against Murat Celikkan, a journalist and prominent Turkish human rights activist. Celikkan had been accused of spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization because of his involvement in the campaign to protest the crackdown and ultimate closure of the Özgür Gündem daily newspaper.

Human rights defender and journalist Murat Çelikkan // Front Line Defenders‏ // Twitter

Özgür Gündem was one of 15 media outlets that had to shut their doors after a government decree was issued on October 29, 2016, and its closure marked the silencing of the last media enterprise that had an active readership among Turkey’s minority Kurdish community. In other words, the closure of the newspaper points not only to a ruthless attack on press freedom in Turkey, but an assault on one of Turkey’s minority communities as well. Celikkan’s pending trial, and Erdogan’s assault on journalists and newspapers critical of his positions are well known. Trump’s silence in the face of such actions, his refusal to name Celikkan and other journalists under attack, make him complicit in Erdogan’s terrible human rights record.

Erdogan’s offensive against journalists has increased dramatically following the attempted coup on July 15, 2016, and his subsequent declaration of a state of emergency in Turkey, which gives him unprecedented power in issuing decrees against anyone deemed critical of his government. The result, as reported by Human Rights Watch, is that by December 2016, 140 media outlets and 29 publishing houses have been shut down in Turkey, and arrest warrants have been issued for more than 100 journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey jailed 81 journalists in 2016 alone, more than any other country.

Protests over the closure of Özgür Gündem // sendika.org // Twitter

Celikkan was by no means the only protester of the closure of the Özgür Gündem daily to subsequently be accused of spreading terrorism propaganda; of the 56 people who joined the campaign to protest the crackdown and ultimate closing of the paper, 50 were placed under investigation and 38 have been prosecuted thus far. Unlike many others, however, Celikkan’s sentence of 18 months in prison has not been reduced or deferred — a result of his so-called “lack of remorse” during the trial.

Celikkan is both a journalist and a prominent human rights defender. He is co-director of the Istanbul-based Truth, Justice and Memory Studies Center, and has been engaged in human rights advocacy, including working to uncover truths about human rights violations committed by the state. He has worked in particular to document and disseminate information about Kurds who during the 1990s were disappeared by the state, and whose cases remain officially unresolved.

Celikkan’s journalistic work and his human rights advocacy work go hand in hand, and in prosecuting his actions in defense of a pro-Kurdish newspaper, Erdogan’s courts are clearly attacking his human rights work as well. The Council of Europe has taken note publicly of Celikkan’s sentencing, with its commissioner for human rights, Nils Muižnieks, issuing the following statement: “I am dismayed at the sentencing of Murat Celikkan on 15 May to 18 months in prison on terrorist propaganda charges for acting as a symbolic co-editor of the pro-Kurdish daily Özgür Gündem. A prominent Turkish human rights defender, Murat Celikkan has made invaluable contributions to my Office and the Council of Europe as co-director of Hakikat Adalet Hafiza Merkezi (Truth Justice Memory Center), notably on issues relating to missing persons.”

President Trump and President Erdogan met again at the G20 Summit // Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu‏ // Twitter

In this statement, and in an accompanying tweet, Muižnieks notes the worrying anti-democratic trend in Turkey concerning freedom of expression and the freedom for human rights defenders to do their work. Celikkan himself seems all too aware of this problem. In 2012, when Celikkan was selected for a fellowship at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, he wrote of Turkey: “The never acknowledged atrocities against minorities in Turkey has not only created an environment of daily violations against them, but has also created a barricade that makes Turkey resistant to democratization. When a society does not deal with the past, when the state neither accepts its faults nor apologizes for its crimes, when perpetrators are not brought to justice, history continues to repeat itself.”

The current situation in Turkey, the violence supported and perpetrated by the state, and the suppression of human rights and freedom of speech that Erdogan endorses, suggest how quickly unresolved and unacknowledged past violence can re-emerge. That Trump helps Erdogan perpetuate this silence speaks to his own murky record on denouncing violence and attacks on the freedom of expression and the rights of journalists.

Ariella Lang is Associate Director at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University.