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How to get away with murder

Keeping the heat on Mohammed bin Salman will help all Saudi journalists, especially those in prison.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.Susan Walsh/Associated Press

What does justice for Jamal Khashoggi look like now?

What will it take to close the books on the murder of the Saudi journalist and US resident assassinated and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul? And what of the dozens of other journalists languishing in Saudi prisons — and the untold others who await that terrifying knock on the door?

This is larger than one crime — and far larger than the current diplomatic pas de deux that the Biden administration is attempting to execute with America’s longtime Middle East ally, a brutal hereditary dictatorship whose disregard for human rights has made its alliance with the United States increasingly untenable.


A little more than a month into his presidency, Joe Biden did as he had promised and ordered a declassified version of an intelligence report on Khashoggi’s 2018 murder released last week.

“We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” said the report, issued by Biden’s director of national intelligence, Avril D. Haines.

The report simply confirmed information leaked during the Trump administration, which didn’t have the decency to make it public. (Let it also be noted that Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, even today is calling release of the report “reckless” and “a political stunt.”)

Beyond releasing the report, the Biden administration announced that 76 Saudis believed involved in the Khashoggi operation, and members of their families, would be the first to be subject to the ”Khashoggi ban” — henceforth denied visas to enter the United States. Also designated for sanctions and asset freezes were the former deputy head of Saudi intelligence, Ahmed al-Assiri (who had been acquitted of complicity in the murder following a largely secret trial in Saudi courts), and members of a special intelligence unit, the Rapid Intervention Force, which answers directly to the crown prince.


Notable by his absence from any of those lists was the now notorious MBS himself, who effectively rules the kingdom.

“Historically, the United States, through Democratic and Republican presidents, has not typically sanctioned government leaders of countries where we have diplomatic relations,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki explained at her Monday briefing.

Those relations, stretching back decades, were forged in realpolitik, not shared values: Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves give it huge influence over the global price of oil.

There is, of course, the remote hope that MBS could somehow be sidelined; the Saudi royal family has rearranged its line of succession before and could theoretically do so again. But for now this “recalibration” of the US-Saudi relationship, the administration hopes, is one of “the right steps to prevent” another murder like Khashoggi’s “from ever happening again,” as Psaki put it.

But there are other ways of turning up the heat, and this week the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders filed a criminal complaint with a German prosecutor naming bin Salman and several of his top aides, including Assiri, accusing them of crimes against humanity, including the killing of Khashoggi. The newly released US report was used to bolster their case.

The suit also named 34 other journalists, one who probably died while in custody, and 33 others currently still detained in Saudi prisons.


“The 35 cases detailed in the complaint reveal a system that threatens the life and liberty of any journalist in Saudi Arabia — in particular those who speak out publicly against the Saudi government,” Reporters Without Borders said on its website.

The group’s secretary general, Christophe Deloire, said, “No one should be above international law, especially when crimes against humanity are at stake. The urgent need for justice is long overdue.”

There are, of course, no guarantees that Germany’s public prosecutor will agree to take the case — now documented in a 500-page filing. But neither is there any prohibition against doing so. Germany’s criminal code has enshrined the principle of universal jurisdiction, meaning it can prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity no matter where they occur.

It would certainly raise the temperature on a case that is far from resolved. It would call out the thuggishness of a man who, according to US intelligence, supports violently silencing dissidents. He does not deserve to wear his nation’s crown and should now and forever be treated like a pariah on the world stage.

But it would also expose the plight of others still behind bars and the clear and present danger that all journalists in Saudi Arabia still face. It would force the world to keep paying attention to the broader lack of freedom in the kingdom. And in doing so, it would truly be a final tribute to the life and work of Jamal Khashoggi. If diplomatic precedent prevents the White House from delivering justice in his name, civic organizations and courts should do whatever they can to pursue it.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.