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Senators Use Human-Rights Law to Compel Trump to Investigate Disappearance of Saudi Journalist

Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul

WASHINGTON -- With a letter to President Trump today, senators triggered a U.S. government investigation required by human-rights law into what happened to a Saudi journalist who disappeared inside the kingdom's consulate in Turkey.

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.

In a shocking report Saturday, Reuters cited unnamed Turkish officials as saying Khashoggi had been murdered inside. “The initial assessment of the Turkish police is that Mr. Khashoggi has been killed at the consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul. We believe that the murder was premeditated and the body was subsequently moved out of the consulate,” one Turkish official told Reuters.

Further reports said that a group of 15 Saudis entered the consulate on the same day as Khashoggi and soon left the country, and that Khashoggi had been dismembered and smuggled out of Turkey in small boxes.

The Saudis claim Khashoggi left the consulate unharmed, but also says their security cameras that could have captured the alleged exit weren't working. They have also not shown that Khashoggi picked up the paperwork documenting his previous divorce. Local media reported that Turkish employees at the consul's residence were abruptly told to leave on the day Khashoggi disappeared.

Khashoggi is a Washington Post columnist and former general manager and editor-in-chief of Al Arab News Channel. The Post reported that U.S. intelligence had previously intercepted Saudi communications discussing a plot to capture Khashoggi.

Khashoggi had been living in exile in Virginia for the past year. Cengiz wrote in the Washington Post today that the couple planned to split their time between D.C. and Istanbul.

"This much is true: He entered the consulate, and there’s no proof that he came out. In recent days, I’ve witnessed the work of the Turkish authorities as they monitor the situation closely. I am confident in the abilities of Turkish government officials. At this time, I implore President Trump and first lady Melania Trump to help shed light on Jamal’s disappearance. I also urge Saudi Arabia, especially King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to show the same level of sensitivity and release CCTV footage from the consulate," Cengiz wrote. "Although this incident could potentially fuel a political crisis between the two nations, let us not lose sight of the human aspect of what happened. Jamal is a valuable person, an exemplary thinker and a courageous man who has been fighting for his principles. I don’t know how I can keep living if he was abducted or killed in Turkey."

At an Oval Office availability early today, Trump was asked if he thinks Khashoggi is dead. "His wife wrote us a letter, and addressed it to my wife and myself. And we're in contact with her now, and we want to bring her to the White House. It's a very sad situation. It's a very bad situation. And we want to get to the bottom of it," he replied, adding he spoke to Saudi officials "at the highest level... more than once" over the past couple of days.

"I've always found him to be a fine man. We've had a very good relationship," he said of King Salman. "I'm not happy about this. We have to see what happens. We have to see what happens. Nobody knows what happened yet. They don't know over there. But it's a very serious situation, and it's something we're taking very seriously. OK?"

When prodded on the matter later at a bill signing, Trump said, "We're going to have a comment on that very soon. And we are very disappointed to see what's going on. We don't like it. We don't like it at all. And we're going to get to the bottom of it. Thank you very much."

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 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."

Khashoggi's disappearance "suggests that he could be a victim of a gross violation of internationally recognized human rights... therefore, we request that you make a determination on the imposition of sanctions pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act with respect to any foreign person responsible for such a violation related to Mr. Khashoggi."

"Our expectation is that in making your determination you will consider any relevant information, including with respect to the highest ranking officials in the Government of Saudi Arabia," they added.

The letter was also signed by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Todd Young (R-Ind.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Jim Risch (R-Idaho), and Tom Udall (D-N.M).

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who planned to meet with the Saudi ambassador this evening, told reporters "there would be hell to pay" if the Saudis killed Khashoggi.

"I've never been more disturbed than I am right now," said Graham. "If this man was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, that would cross every line of normality in the international community."