Why columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing has sparked global outrage

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Protests demanding Jamal Khashoggi's release Human rights activists hold pictures of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a protest outside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey on October 9. (Reuters photo)

By Megan Specia

The killing of dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul has resonated internationally in an unusually powerful way. In the weeks since he disappeared, his case has become a top story and a focal point for outrage.

All this attention has raised questions about why the killing of one man has set off a louder uproar than other Saudi actions — such as the war in Yemen and the humanitarian crisis it has caused there, or the roundup at home of hundreds of political rivals.

The answer seems to lie partly in the nature of Khashoggi’s death and the way it came to light, amplified by his prominence. The controversy also reflects a growing discomfort with Saudi Arabia’s increased aggressiveness under the leadership of its brash young crown prince.

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Here are some of the reasons the killing has stirred such fascination and outrage, and why it could have political ramifications for Saudi Arabia.

Khashoggi was a prominent writer with powerful friends.

He was not only a well-known journalist, but a man used to rubbing shoulders with political elites. He became friends with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and had been close to Saudi royals. He spent years rising in the ranks of the Saudi media and later served as an unofficial spokesman and adviser for the royal family.

But his career in Saudi Arabia came to a halt when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman barred him from writing in the kingdom as part of a widespread crackdown on dissent.

Khashoggi went into self-imposed exile in the United States, becoming a prominent critic of the Saudi monarchy in regular columns for The Washington Post. The crown prince often was the focus of his criticism, with recent columns slamming him for “peddling revisionist history,” for jailing prominent women’s rights activists and for stifling free speech.

Assassinations of any kind get attention, and they spark fear. But when the victim is as well known as Khashoggi was, it puts a face to the fear, said Michael Glennon, a professor of international law at Tufts University. “These are specific people with names and faces who are prominent, and in many cases well connected,” he said.

The gruesome death gave a face, as well, to the larger-scale type of aggression being carried out by Saudi Arabia and made it feel far more tangible.

A killing inside a consulate, often a place of refuge, is shocking.

The location of Khashoggi’s killing only served to add intrigue.

Turkish officials identified 15 men, some with proven links to the Saudi crown prince, who they say were involved in the killing. Saudi officials say Khashoggi’s death was a rogue killing and deny any links to the royal family.

The brazenness of a targeted killing by Saudi agents on Turkish soil not only violates international law but may also be seen by the Turks as a challenge to their authority.

The 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations — which Turkey and Saudi Arabia both signed — lays out international law governing consulates and embassies and provides protections for diplomatic officials and facilities.

“They kind of escape the jurisdictional grip of the receiving state,” explained Jan Wouters, professor of international law at K.U. Leuven in Belgium. “But that is based on a kind of understanding that these people will adhere to the law and will not abuse the freedom and space they are given under international law.”

The Saudi Consulate in Istanbul is a protected space under international law. Although it is in Turkish territory, local officials cannot enter without Saudi consent.

Embassies and consulates the world over are seen as places of political refuge, and while they are subject to some local laws, the facility and the diplomatic staff working inside are shielded from law enforcement in some cases.

But in cases of grave crimes, like the Khashoggi killing, that immunity can be lifted.

“The fact that it occurred in a consulate just put all of this in bold relief,” said Glennon. “Embassies and consulates are supposedly safe zones. These are places where one seeks refuge, so it’s all the more brazen.”

Leaks to Turkish media kept the story in the headlines.

After Khashoggi’s disappearance inside the consulate on Oct. 2, Turkish authorities began strategically leaking information to pro-government news outlets within the country. The calculated strategy assured that his case stayed in the headlines day after day, as Saudi officials initially denied any knowledge of his fate.

The leaks offered grisly descriptions of audio recordings that revealed Khashoggi had been dismembered, his head and fingers cut off, incensing the international community. Accounts of a body double, hunts for remains and reports of private jets spiriting away Saudi officials only added to the drama.

The leaks, some of which were confirmed by Erdogan in a speech on Tuesday, put pressure on the Saudi government to offer an explanation on Khashoggi’s whereabouts.

The Saudi crown prince had already set the stage for tense geopolitics.

Prince Mohammed has been ruthless in his pursuit of regional domination, and that has made him some enemies. Many have questioned his country’s war in Yemen, its apparent coercion on the Lebanese prime minister to resign and its confrontation with Qatar.

Turkish and U.S. intelligence officials say they believe the men behind Khashoggi’s killing are linked to the crown prince. While Saudi Arabia denies that, the apparent links have called the crown prince’s actions in general into further question.

The death of a single man — Khashoggi — has come to encapsulate a troubling vision of Prince Mohammed’s Saudi Arabia as a nation in which the leader can act with impunity, targeting dissenters and political opponents at will.

Now, Erdogan may see the Khashoggi case as a chance to check the prince’s power and limit the reach of a regional rival.

The divergent narratives about Khashoggi’s death have left the United States stuck between two allies. President Donald Trump has sent mixed signals, swerving between defending Saudi Arabia and pressing for answers.

Beyond the geopolitical fallout and the international implications, there is no denying that for many people, Khashoggi’s death has hit home on an emotional level.

Madawi Al-Rasheed, an expert on Saudi Arabia and a professor at the Middle East Centre of the London School of Economics, wrote in a recent column that the killing has seemed to capture Western attention in a profound way. Taken alone, she said, the circumstances around his death are enough to be “a legitimate source of outrage.”

“This would be murder by a state — or the organs of a state — of an unarmed journalist, without judicial process, on diplomatic ground outside the territory of the perpetrators’ country,” Al-Rasheed wrote. “It is this dreadful cocktail of circumstances that explains the general outrage that it has sparked.”

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