USA TODAY- Dua al-Showaiki has been in hiding in Turkey with her sister Dalal for the past three months. Recently, the sisters were told to go where they knew they never should: Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul where journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed last year.
One year after the slaying on Oct. 2., 2018, of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and critic of Saudi Arabia’s government who disappeared inside the country’s diplomatic offices in Turkey, his remains have yet to be found.
A United Nations report concluded that there was “credible evidence” that Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler who enjoys a close relationship with the Trump administration, masterminded the killing. The CIA concluded that the crown prince ordered the execution or at least bears some responsibility for the Saudi operatives who carried out the assassination. Bin Salman denied in an interview with “60 Minutes” that he ordered the killing.
The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned 17 Saudi officials for “rights abuses” connected to the case, but not the powerful crown prince – widely known by the initials MBS. President Donald Trump vetoed a push by lawmakers to ban some weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, which has used the arms to wage an offensive against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Turkish prosecutors, citing audio and other evidence, said that shortly after entering the consulate, Khashoggi was injected with a sedative, strangled, then dismembered in a killing that took less than seven minutes. Saudi Arabia admitted that Khashoggi died in its consulate but blamed his death on “rogue” Saudi agents.
Saudi crown prince: Jamal Khashoggi’s murder ‘happened under my watch’
The al-Showaiki sisters’ brush with officials from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul came one night in August as they reported to a police station with two other Saudi nationals, both women, who also went into hiding in Turkey to escape a country with some of the most draconian laws in the Middle East.
“They said: ‘Come with us. We’ll take care of you. We can help you get home to your family. Everything will be fine,’ ” said Dua al-Showaiki, 22, recounting the incident at the police station in August. She said the Saudi officials who mysteriously showed up at the station tried to lure the women back to a place where, according to the United Nations, Khashoggi was “the victim of a deliberate, premeditated execution.”
“We knew what had happened to Khashoggi,” she said. “It was scary.”
The al-Showaiki sisters – Dalal is 20 – ran away from their allegedly abusive Saudi father during a family vacation in Istanbul in June. The sisters claim – and their father disputes – that they were routinely beaten and sexually abused. They said their family tried to force them to marry older men, a particularly troubling scenario for Dua, who is lesbian. Homosexuality is punishable by death under Saudi law.
Though the oil-rich kingdom relaxed some long-standing restrictions, such as a ban on female drivers, authorities continue to discriminate against women and religious minorities. Under the strict male guardianship system, a male controls every aspect of a woman’s life from birth to death. In the year since Khashoggi’s death, Saudi Arabia has escalated arrests and convictions of dissidents and activists, according to humanitarian groups such as New York City-based Human Rights Watch.
There are numerous examples.
Loujain al-Hathloul, 30, was arrested, along with 10 other women, in a crackdown targeting women’s rights activists and political figures who campaigned for the right to drive. Her brother said she was tortured while in detention by Saud al-Qahtani, a former royal court adviser to MBS suspected of being involved in Khashoggi’s killing. Al-Hathloul rejected a release deal with Saudi authorities because they wanted her to deny she had been grossly mistreated.
MBS was pressed about her case in an interview with “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday. He claimed not to know whether the torture allegations are true.
“If this is correct, it is very heinous,” the crown prince said. “Islam forbids torture.”
He promised to “personally follow up” on al-Hathloul’s case but would not commit to releasing her, asserting that it was not up to him but an independent prosecutor.
Friday marked al-Hathloul’s 500th day in jail.
Last year, Rahaf Mohammed, 19, made headlines around the world when she flew from Saudi Arabia to Thailand and barricaded herself in a hotel, appealing on Twitter for help to avoid deportation back to a place where she said she was beaten and locked up for months at a time. The teenager said she feared being killed if she was sent back to her family.
Mohammed lives in Canada, which granted her asylum.
A step toward change: Women in Saudi Arabia gear up to legally drive for first time
Dua al-Showaiki said she and her sister escaped from their father after he forgot to lock a bathroom door in the hotel room they stayed in during the family’s Istanbul vacation. They fled with no money or identification and have been moving between safe houses. Their father claimed they were kidnapped. The two Saudi women who were at the police station with the sisters returned home to the kingdom under unclear circumstances. Their identities have been withheld for their safety.
Al-Showaiki said one of the Saudi men at the police station identified himself as “her father’s lawyer.” She does not know if that’s true or how the Saudi officials were alerted to their presence at the police station. She credited Turkey’s police with making sure that the women were escorted to a safe place and defusing a tricky situation.
USA TODAY was put in touch with the al-Showaiki sisters by Toby Cadman, a London-based human rights lawyer who represented their case at the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which seeks to protect refugees, displaced communities and stateless people and to resettle them.
In keeping with the organization’s privacy policies, the UNHCR would not confirm the existence of the al-Showaikis’ application for refugee status, but Cadman said a decision in the sisters’ case was reached and will soon be made public.
A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to emailed questions about the sisters’ allegations. Saudi officials in London and Riyadh also did not respond to requests for comment.
“These girls are still at risk in Turkey,” Cadman said, “primarily because the Saudis have already abducted, tortured and dismembered a journalist in their own consulate.”
It’s not inconceivable, he said, that it could happen again.
Saudis, not Iranians
Khashoggi was a dissident who lived in exile in Virginia.
His death still haunts Saudi Arabia’s reputation.
Polls show Americans had limited trust in the nation as an ally even before Khashoggi’s slaying. A survey by The Washington Post, where he worked as a columnist, found in late October 2018 that 84% of voters in battleground states said it was likely that Saudi leaders aggressively tried to cover up his killing.
After an attack on two Saudi Arabian oil facilities last month that the Trump administration blamed on Iran, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Riyadh to meet with MBS and reaffirm U.S. support – possibly even military support for any planned retaliation. Only 13% of Americans in a poll by the Business Insider said they would back the U.S. military joining or supporting Saudi Arabia in any consequent conflict, even though the attacks caused the worst sudden disruption to the global oil supply in history.
Two-thirds of Americans have an unfavorable impression of Saudi Arabia, the highest ever recorded, according to a Gallup Poll published in February.
“Khashoggi’s killing has damaged Saudi Arabia even more than the Sept. 11 hijackers,” said Ali al-Ahmed, a Washington-based Saudi scholar, referring to the 19 attackers who hijacked four planes in the coordinated terrorist attacks. Fifteen were Saudis.
Trump has resisted calls from hawkish Republican lawmakers, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, who advocated for a forceful retaliatory strike on Iran over the Saudi oil attacks. He sent a small number of troops to the country instead and imposed new sanctions on Iran’s national bank. The U.S. president’s support for MBS coincides with his dismantling of a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.
Trump pulled the United States out of the accord a year ago, deepening tensions between the two countries that have at times appeared to threaten to spill over into all-out war.
Trump put Saudi Arabia at the nexus of his Middle East policy, choosing Riyadh as the destination for his first overseas trip as president. During the visit, Trump was photographed with King Salman bin Abdulaziz (MBS’ ailing father) and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi as their hands touched a glowing miniature globe at the opening event for a new Saudi center aimed at combating extremism.
The symbolism was hard to ignore: The Saudis, major supporters of a harsh line on Iran and offering to play a role in mediating peace between Israelis and Palestinians, would be central to the new White House’s thinking on a turbulent region.
“This administration has been very hawkish toward the Iranians, especially when it comes to taking the Saudi side in their proxy conflict with Iran,” said Benjamin Friedman at Defense Priorities, a think tank that promotes greater restraint when it comes to the use of the U.S. military abroad. “At the same time, it’s become clear that we’re not just going to bomb Iranians on behalf of the Saudis because of the hits to their oil infrastructure” or other incitements.
Al-Ahmed, the Saudi scholar, who claims the Saudi government has made multiple attempts over many years to lure him to different countries because of his criticism of the monarchy, disputed the suggestion that the Trump administration has pursued closer relations with the Saudis than previous administrations.
“Obama, W. Bush, Clinton, H.W. Bush – the American strategy on Saudi Arabia has not changed in decades. It’s still oil for security,” he said. “Trump has not departed from this. While it’s of course true that he supports MBS very publicly, Trump’s is the first U.S. administration that has actually sanctioned Saudis, and that includes 9/11.”
The buck stops with MBS (says MBS)
MBS made his first public comments about Khashoggi’s death in a PBS documentary and the “60 Minutes” interview. He told “60 Minutes” he takes “full responsibility” for the killing, because it was carried out by Saudi government officials.
But he denied playing any role in what he called a “heinous” crime. “Absolutely not,” MBS responded when asked if he ordered Khashoggi’s execution, as the CIA concluded.
The kingdom has made other moves to quell the international outcry over Khashoggi’s killing, such as appointing Princess Reema bint Bandar to be its first female ambassador to the United States and announcing last week that it was launching a visa program to attract foreign tourists. Strict dress codes for female visitors will be relaxed.
Ahmad al-Khateeb, Saudi Arabia’s tourist minister, described it as a “historic moment.”
Last week, the kingdom transferred $500 million to the United Nations for humanitarian assistance to Yemen, which has been devastated by the Saudi-Iran proxy war. That won plaudits on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have grown increasingly outraged by Saudi conduct in a war that has killed thousands and left millions hungry.
More quietly, Saudi-related interests have increased their foreign influence and lobbying spending in the USA in the year since Khashoggi’s killing, even as many firms tried to distance themselves from the country after his death, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog group. The center’s data shows that Saudi Arabian interests reported spending approximately $12.4 million from Oct. 2, 2017, to Oct. 2, 2018, and more than $28.3 million from that date through the most recent receipts disclosed in July.
An analysis by the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative, which investigates foreign influence on the U.S. government, found that nearly two dozen lobbying firms were registered to represent Saudi clients six months after Khashoggi’s slaying.
“The Saudis continue to possess one of the largest and most powerful foreign influence networks in America,” Ben Freeman, director of the transparency initiative, concluded in his report in April.
Many American lawmakers remain deeply skeptical of MBS and push for a pullback in U.S. support for the kingdom.
“There’s been no accountability, no meaningful accountability, in the year since Mr. Khashoggi’s murder,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a critic of the Trump administration’s cozy ties to Saudi Arabia, said at an event marking the anniversary of Khashoggi’s death. “We have to keep questioning the nature of a relationship and an alliance that no longer is founded on common interests and has never been founded on common values.”
For Saudis inside the Middle East country, it may not matter.
Ensaf Haidar, the wife of Raif Badawi, a writer and social activist jailed in Saudi Arabia in 2012 after falling afoul of religious authorities, said in a text message her husband still languishes in prison despite all the international attention the Khashoggi killing received. Badawi was arrested for “insulting Islam through electronic channels.” He is serving a 10-year sentence with “1,000 lashes.” One of his alleged crimes was to mock the Saudi prohibition against celebrating Valentine’s Day.
“Nothing has changed. Nobody can say anything about Khashoggi or anything else controversial in Saudi. It’s still really dangerous,” Dua al-Showaiki said.
There has been one change: Saudi Arabia is trying to sell its Istanbul consulate, Turkish media reported. Though the sale has not been confirmed by the kingdom, one option under discussion is moving it to a district near the U.S. consulate.