WASHINGTON — The White House missed a Friday deadline by which the administration was to report to Congress whether Saudi Arabia’s crown prince ordered the October murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Human rights sanctions against Russia, known as the Magnitsky Act, became law in the U.S. in 2012; the legislation was named for Russian attorney Sergei Magnitsky who died in detention after discovering massive government fraud. Congress expanded the bill to sanction officials beyond Russia with the Global Magnitsky Act in 2016; versions have also become law in the UK, Canada and Baltic states.
Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, sent a letter to Trump shortly after Khashoggi disappeared inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, noting that the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act requires the president, upon request from the Foreign Relations Committee leaders, “to determine whether a foreign person is responsible for an extrajudicial killing, torture, or other gross violation of internationally recognized human rights against an individual exercising freedom of expression, and report to the Committee within 120 days with a determination and a decision on the imposition of sanctions on that foreign person or persons.”
The deadline was Friday, and a senior administration official told CNN that the “president maintains his discretion to decline to act on congressional committee requests when appropriate.”
Pressed about the mandate at a Thursday briefing, State Department spokesman Robert Palladino told reporters, “The Department of State shares the deep concern and outrage over the killings of Jamal Khashoggi expressed by members of Congress and we have consulted and corresponded with the Congress regularly since Jamal Khashoggi’s October 2nd killing, including briefings by the Secretary of State.”
On Oct. 2, Jamal Khashoggi went inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul for a second visit to get a document needed to get married. His fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, waited 11 hours for him outside, but he never came out. Khashoggi, a vocal critic of the Saudi regime, had been living in exile in Virginia for the past year.
Agnes Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said this week that a United Nations investigation revealed “a brutal and premeditated killing, planned and perpetrated by officials of the State of Saudi Arabia” that raises “a number of international implications, which demand the urgent attention of the international community.” Her final report is due to the UN Human Rights Council in June.
A New York Times report this week cited U.S. and foreign officials as saying Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman telling an aide in 2017 that he would use “a bullet” on Khashoggi. The Saudis have admitted the journalist was killed inside the consulate, blaming aides in the crown prince’s inner circle, but asserting the prince was not involved. The Turks say Khashoggi was dismembered with a bone saw.
The current chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent him a letter “which describes the actions taken by the administration to sanction individuals involved in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and expresses their ongoing efforts to seek justice.”
“I anticipate a more detailed briefing from the administration on this issue and look forward to working with them and the members of my committee in our ongoing effort to address the killing of Jamal Khashoggi,” Risch said. “Legislation has been introduced on this issue in both the House and Senate, with more to come.”
Menendez said Friday that “the Trump administration showed that it is willing to ignore U.S. law in its continued effort to stonewall accountability for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”
“The administration failed to meet its legal requirement to make a determination of responsibility for this heinous murder and report to Congress,” he said. “I am very disappointed that the response from Secretary Pompeo doesn’t come close to fulfilling the statutory mandate and demonstrates what the administration has wanted all along – the Khashoggi murder to be forgotten.”
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), lead author of the Global Magnitsky Act, called for an independent international investigation and said that “President Trump’s flagrant willingness to brush aside American rule of law to protect those in Saudi Arabia responsible for the brutal death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is astounding.”
“The U.S.-Saudi relationship is important to U.S. national security but it should not provide blanket immunity to individuals at any level of society to engage in extrajudicial killings. America’s strength is in our values,” Cardin said. “The president’s demonstrated willingness to sacrifice those core values will cause more harm to our national security than admitting the truth about the Saudi crown prince’s complicity in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi.”