Murdered Saudi Arabian writer Jamal Khashoggi and a group of journalists were named, collectively, as “Time Magazine’s” 2018 Person of the Year.
WASHINGTON – The State Department labeled Jamal Khashoggi’s murder a human rights violation committed by Saudi Arabian government agents in a new report released Wednesday.
But the report, which details human rights abuses around the world, makes no mention of the likely role that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohamed bin Salman, played in the Washington Post columnist’s death.
And the State Department’s top human rights official declined to say what role, if any, the CIA’s assessment of the case played in the account of Khashoggi’s death. The CIA has concluded that the crown prince directed Khashoggi’s murder, according to multiple lawmakers briefed by the agency’s director Gina Haspel.
FILE – In this Dec. 15, 2014, file photo, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks during a press conference in Manama, Bahrain. An independent U.N. human rights expert says authorities in Saudi Arabia quietly held a second court hearing for 11 people facing charges over the killing of Khashoggi. Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who wrote critically about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File) (Photo: The Associated Press)
“When we do these reports, we seek all relevant sources of information including U.S. intelligence information,” Ambassador Michael Kozak, who leads the State Department’s Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Bureau, told reporters Wednesday during a briefing on the annual report mandated by Congress. Kozak said he would not discuss what intelligence information he and other officials reviewed with respect to Saudi Arabia or any other country.
In its account of Khashoggi’s death, the State Department report says that Saudi government agents “carried out the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 2.” Khashoggi had been a fierce critic of the crown prince, who is the country’s de facto ruler.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has “pledged to hold all individuals involved accountable, regardless of position or rank” and 11 suspects have been indicted by the kingdom’s public prosecutor’s office, the human rights report notes. But the Saudi government has not yet publicly named any of those 11 suspects or provided any detailed account of where its investigation stands.
“In other cases, the government did not punish officials accused of committing human rights abuses, contributing to an environment of impunity,” the report states.
Kosak defended the omission of the crown prince’s name in connection with Khashoggi and seemed to suggest that any conclusion about his role was speculation.
“We can all have our suspicions or speculations but our effort is fact driven rather than opinion driven,” he said. He repeated the Saudi government’s assertions that its own investigation into the matter was ongoing.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo singled out four countries – Iran, South Sudan, Nicaragua and China – in brief remarks to reporters on the report, which examines the human rights records of more than 200 countries and territories.
China “is in a league of its own when it comes to human rights violations,” Pompeo said. He pointed to the Chinese government’s brutally repressive campaign against Muslim minority groups.
“Today, more than 1 million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other Muslims are interned in reeducation camps designed to erase their religious and ethnic identities,” Pompeo noted. “The government also is increasing its persecution against Christians, Tibetans, and anyone who espouses different views from those or advocates those of government – or advocates change in government.”
This is the first human rights report released with Pompeo at the helm of the State Department. The Trump administration sparked controversy with last year’s report by nixing any assessment of women’s reproductive rights. Under the Obama administration, the annual report included information for each country about women’s access to contraception and abortion, as well as data on maternal mortality.
Under Pompeo, this year’s report again omits that information and instead details coerced abortion and involuntary sterilization practices in each country. The change sparked criticism from leading human rights advocates.
“Neglecting to include these rights in this assessment is an affront to women and girls, LGBT people, young people, and human rights defenders everywhere,” Joanne Lin, national director of advocacy and governmental relations at Amnesty International USA, said in a statement.
Kozak said the State Department stopped offering data on reproductive rights because it suggested an “international right to abortion.”
The report details systematic and severe human rights abuses in North Korea, including arbitrary killings, torture and prison camps “in which conditions were often harsh and life threatening.”
Kosak conceded that U.S. engagement with North Korea, including President Donald Trump’s personal efforts at diplomacy with Kim Jong Un, had not resulted in any improvement in the country’s human rights record.
“It’s still one of the worst human rights situations in the world. It has not improved,” he said. He argued that the U.S. is at “the forefront of trying to expose what North Korea is doing and bring international attention to it,” despite Trump seeming to gloss over such issues in his dealings with Kim.
Human rights groups also took issue with the report’s description of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights, which used to be labeled as “occupied territories” because they are under Israeli control. Last year’s report also included that change, which is particularly sensitive because Palestinians see the Trump administration as heavily biased towards Israel.
Kazak defended that description and said it did not represent any policy shift. He said “occupied territory” carries a legal definition so the State Department opted to use a geographical description instead.
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