October 25, 2020

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Khashoggi supporters launch group to advocate for democratic rights in the Arab world

By Kareem Fahim,

ISTANBUL — Supporters of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist murdered by his government’s agents two years ago, launched an organization Tuesday aimed at promoting human rights and democracy in the Arab world. They said this mission was dear to Khashoggi, who by the end of his life was one the region’s most visible exiles and dissidents.

He established the nonprofit organization, called Democracy for the Arab World Now, shortly before his death, but the group has remained dormant since then. His supporters said Tuesday it would expose abuses by governments in the Middle East, and in particular U.S.-allied nations such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt — three of the Trump administration’s closest Arab partners.

Khashoggi set up the group “based on his belief that only democracy and freedom will bring lasting peace and security to the Middle East and North Africa,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the organization’s executive director, said during a virtual news conference. “We are going to uphold Jamal’s legacy,” she said.

Khashoggi was killed Oct. 2, 2018, after visiting Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents that would allow him to marry. He walked into the mission despite the risk. In the months that preceded that visit, he had been writing columns in The Washington Post that were sharply critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who effectively rules Saudi Arabia and shows no patience for rivals or subjects who speak up.

The journalist’s murder and dismemberment, revealed in gruesome detail by Turkey’s government, set off a wave of international outrage and calls to ostracize the Saudi leadership. The kingdom’s efforts to rehabilitate its image have included promoting domestic social reforms and opening Saudi Arabia more widely to outsiders, including by granting tourist visas.

The kingdom prosecuted people it said were Khashoggi’s killers, but court sessions were closed to the public, and no senior officials were held to account.

President Trump has remained one of Mohammed’s most stalwart advocates. This year, Saudi Arabia will host the G-20 leaders summit, in another sign that Western governments have moved past the controversy over the killing.

Even as Saudi Arabia has mended its alliances, its critics have shown signs of becoming more organized — galvanized, in significant part, by Khashoggi’s death. Last week, exiled Saudi dissidents announced the formation of new political party, called the National Assembly Party, which called for the kingdom “to wholeheartedly adopt democracy as a political system to replace the current absolute monarchy,” one of the founders, Madawi al-Rasheed, wrote in an essay.

“Khashoggi’s assassination shattered the myth about the benevolent monarchy and redefined the image of the country in the imagination of the international community as a rogue state,” she wrote.

Whitson said Democracy for the Arab World received funding from private individuals and foundations and did not receive any financial assistance from foreign governments. Part of its mission was to hold Western states accountable for enabling abuses by authoritarian Arab governments, she said. “We aim to challenge the narrative that’s floating around still to this day in Washington of the United States as a benign actor that’s tried so hard to promote democracy in the region.”

The group would also work to punish those behind Khashoggi’s killing. The CIA has concluded it was almost certainly carried out with Mohammed’s knowledge, an assertion the crown prince has denied.

“Watch this space to see exactly how we plan to make the Saudi Arabian culprits involved in his murder face the consequences for their crimes right here in the United States,” Whitson said.