“You can’t betray [us] and not get punished for it. Anyone, even those still alive, will reap the consequences. Anyone. It is a matter of time.”
—A currently serving murderous dictator
With the astonishingly rapid accumulation of photographic and documentary evidence, leaked intelligence intercepts, and first-rate journalistic reporting, it is increasingly clear that the Saudi state brutally murdered journalist and critic Jamal Khashoggi in its consulate in Istanbul on October 2. The floating of the first lame attempt at a cover story—that Khashoggi, who was shown on surveillance tape entering the consulate but never leaving, had somehow disappeared for his own mysterious reasons—melted like a cube of ice in the Saudi desert.
Any notion that Khashoggi’s murder was a “rogue operation” of interrogation gone awry will similarly melt in the face of withering evidence and logic. You don’t bring the kind of 15-member team of security officials—including a leading expert in forensic medicine—to conduct an interrogation unless you intend it to end with murder that must be thoroughly covered up. You don’t immediately scrub and repaint the scene of the interrogation if there was no crime to cover up. And, if the Turkish intelligence accounts are true, you don’t bring a bone saw to an “interrogation” unless you not only intend to murder the detainee but also to dismember his body to enable inconspicuous evacuation of the remains from the scene of the crime, and indeed the country. Moreover, as former CIA Director John Brennan observed on Meet the Press last Sunday, it is inconceivable that such a complex, heinous and brazen international criminal operation could have been mounted without the knowledge of the now de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, the audacious and impulsive young man who appears to be making all the country’s key decisions, foreign and domestic—Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Since being elevated to his current position in June 2017, the 33-year-old Crown Prince has alternately appeared as both reformer and repressor, an agent of badly needed social modernization and a throwback to royal despotism. His efforts to rein in the vast social power of the extreme Wahhabi religious establishment raised the prospect of a gradual but sweeping transformation toward greater openness, rationality, moderation, and innovation. But his ruthless power grabs—his rapid, driven ascent at barely half the age of royal competitors, breaking all the rules of Saudi royal succession; his detention and alleged coercive interrogation of a wide swath of the Saudi elite shortly after taking power; and his merciless, indiscriminate use of Saudi military force in Yemen, spreading death and displacement on a scale that could amount to war crimes—have suggested a darker, Shakespearian streak: breathtaking personal ambition tinged with total and ruthless resolve. Well before Khashoggi’s murder, some worried that the international persona of the charming, tech-savvy prince might mask a chilling, psychopathic streak.
The quote atop this article, however, is not from Mohammed bin Salman. It comes from another absolute autocrat who has made a practice of killing his political enemies and rivals abroad. If you just guessed Vladimir Putin (or Kim Jong Un) it was a reasonable conjecture. But, as reported by the BBC, the words were uttered in January 2014 by Rwandan President Paul Kagame, at a prayer breakfast shortly after Rwanda’s former external intelligence chief, Col Patrick Karegeya, was strangled to death in his Johannesburg hotel room. Karegeya, who had fled to exile in South Africa after breaking with Kagame in 2008, had (according to the BBC) been advising the governments of South Africa and Tanzania as they were sending troops to a UN force in the Democratic Republic of Congo that was battling M23, a rebel group widely believed to be supported by Kagame and his military. Other Rwandan officials also engaged in thinly concealed gloating about Karegeya’s murder, including the defense minister, who declared, “When you choose to be a dog, you die like a dog, and the cleaners will wipe away the trash.”
Notwithstanding the fawning admiration he has earned from international development agencies, and from former Western democratic leaders turned development philanthropists like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, Kagame has proven himself to be a murderous thug. A stunning investigation by The Globe and Mail revealed, as has other international reporting, what appears to be a systematic campaign of the Rwandan dictatorship to track down and murder perceived enemies at home and abroad, leaving fearful surviving dissidents to hide their whereabouts and frequently change their locations. The campaign has wiped out “a succession of prominent critics and campaigners, judges and journalists,” who “have been beaten, beheaded, shot and stabbed” to death “after crossing Kagame.”
Western democracies cannot hide behind a veil of ignorance. They have known for years of Kagame’s penchant for killing his enemies abroad, and of his destructive covert military interventions in the DRC and elsewhere in Africa. They have even occasionally warned exiled Rwandans at risk. But of how much value are warnings when the legitimating embrace of diplomacy, aid, and international esteem continues unabated? After Scotland Yard tipped him off to a Rwandan assassination plot against him in 2011, a Rwandan dissident told a British journalist, “You just feel anything can happen, especially when nothing is done at the international level against Kagame. It is like he has a license to kill.”
And of course that is precisely what Vladimir Putin perceives he has had, while leaving a trail of vengeance and violence that includes more than two-dozen murders and mysterious deaths in at least half a dozen foreign countries. As with Kagame, the list of absurdly suspicious deaths, assassinations, and assassination attempts has piled up with impunity over the now nearly two decades of Putin’s control of the Kremlin and its far-reaching—and clearly revitalized—intelligence apparatuses.
These have featured not only mafia-style methods of execution—people pushed from balconies or gunned down in broad daylight—but also a bizarre, terrorizing succession of attacks by poison, an extremely painful method of elimination that dates far back in Russian history, was perfected in the Soviet communist era, and was then taken to radioactive extreme under Putin. The known instances have included the 2006 assassination in London of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who drank a cup of tea laced with radioactive polonioum-210 by two Russian agents; the 2003 attempted murder-by-poisoning of Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yuschenko, who was campaigning not just for democracy but also to pull Ukraine out of the orbit of Russian domination; the sudden death by suspected poisoning of Alexander Perepilichny, who had fled to the UK after assisting an international investigation of Russian money-laundering; the poisoning attempts on the life of the young journalist and dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza, a leading advocate of the Sergei Magnitsky Act that now empowers the United States to impose targeted sanctions on Russian leaders who violate human rights; and the nearly successful nerve-agent attack on former double agent Sergei Skripal in Britain earlier this year.
As David Filipov of the Washington Post documented in 2017, many of Putin’s other enemies have died in more conventional ways, including: Denis Voronenkov, an opposition politician and fierce Putin critic who was shot and killed in Kiev in 2017 after fleeing to Ukraine the previous year; Boris Nemtsov, perhaps the most potent political opponent of Putin, who was gunned down just steps from the Kremlin in February 2015; Boris Berezosky, the billionaire oligarch exiled in Britain, who was found dead in the locked bathroom of his British home in 2013 with a noose around his head; human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, who was shot near the Kremlin in 2009; the accountability whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who was brutally beaten to death in police custody in 2009; Anna Politkovskaya, a crusading Russian reporter for Novaya Gazeta, who wrote a book accusing Putin of turning Russia into a police state and then became one of its victims, shot and killed at point-blank range in an elevator in her apartment building; and Sergei Yushenkov, a former military officer and then opposition leader who was gunned down in Moscow while gathering evidence he believed would prove that Putin’s government was behind the spectacular 1999 apartment bombings—blamed on Chechen terrorists—that paved the way for Putin’s consolidation of power.
Putin, like Kagame, has made no secret of his determination for revenge against those who betray him. In 2010, he warned, “traitors will kick the bucket, believe me.” At the same time, of course, Russia has consistently denied any knowledge of or responsibility for the growing pattern of Putin’s critics and enemies dying (or nearly so) in suspicious circumstances abroad.
In a trenchant and tragically clairvoyant Washington Post column after Mohammed bin Salman’s “Night of the Long Knives” last November (during which he arrested much of the established Saudi elite), Khashoggi compared the Crown Prince to Vladimir Putin. Decrying the country’s staggering corruption, waste, and inequality, Khashoggi welcomed the declared campaign against corruption but warned that (as in Russia) it could only succeed with transparent investigations and a rule of law. The Crown Prince, he insisted, could not be “above the standard he is now setting for the rest of his family, and for the country.”
Now we face a great test of whether an American resident—a journalist, a public intellectual, and a forthright dissident, to whom America gave both refuge and inspiration—can be murdered in a third country with impunity by a ruler and a state that have brazenly acted above the law. With every new incident of international murder and intimidation, our values, our commitment to freedom, and our national interest in a world governed by law are under challenge. We must make it clear not only to the Saudi monarchy but to all the world’s dictators that they cannot murder their opponents with impunity. They must know that there will be consequences, and that we will hold them personally responsible.
This is why the Congress broadened the original 2012 Magnitsky law by passing in 2016 a Global Magnitsky Act that provides for targeted sanctions—travel bans and asset freezes—on gross violators of human rights. These provisions must now be applied to all Saudi officials responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, to Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his senior leadership, and to other rulers in Africa, Central Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere who make a practice of murdering their opponents at home and abroad. And our democratic allies in Europe—beginning with Britain, which (like the United States) has welcomed into its banks and real estate markets huge volumes of ill-gotten wealth from dictatorships—must join in imposing targeted sanctions.
All of this must be based on evidence, and if the Trump Administration will not seek it and provide it, Congress must demand it and subpoena it. For a time in the 1970s, it was Congress that took the lead in pressing for a new American resolve to defend human rights in the world and demand accountability for violations. It made a difference then, helping to ignite a period of sweeping global democratic change. Now, Congress must take the lead again.
It was only when the United States and Europe replied to the Skripal assassination attempt earlier this year with much more vigorous diplomatic and personal sanctions that Putin might have begun to get the message that continuing his reign of murder abroad would cost him dearly. It is still not costing him enough, but the precedent is now there. If dictators can murder any citizen who crosses them any place in the world, then the rule of law is not secure anywhere, and none of us are safe.