UN expert demands transparency in trial of Saudi men accused in Khashoggi killing

The UN expert investigating the brutal killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi is calling on the government of Saudi Arabia to make public the names of the accused and the evidence against them — and to open the secretive hearings to independent observers.

Special rapporteur wants Riyadh to open secretive hearings to independent observers

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed after entering his country's consulate in Istanbul last October. (Virginia Mayo/Associated Press)

The UN expert investigating the brutal killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi is calling on the government of Saudi Arabia to make public the names of the accused and the evidence against them, and to open the secretive hearings to independent observers.

Khashoggi, a Saudi national who had been critical of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, was killed on Oct. 2 inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

After providing several contradictory statements — including insisting Khashoggi had left the consulate alive — Saudi Arabia indicted 11 people in connection with his murder, seeking the death penalty against five of them.

Khashoggi's body has never been recovered.

"To date, the trial of those alleged to be involved in the killing of Mr. Khashoggi has proceeded largely in secrecy, both in terms of the proceedings and substance," said Agnes Callamard in a statement released today.

"The trial is held behind closed doors."

The Saudi kingdom has invited representatives from the five permanent veto-wielding members on the Security Council — the U.S., U.K., France, Russia and China — to observe "at least some of the hearings," explained Callamard.

But she said their presence raises more concerns than it answers.

"We should not be expecting them to provide an international, impartial, technical observation of the trial," Callamard told CBC News in an interview. "It's just not their role."

More worrisome, she said, is the possibility that the presence of state observers may give Riyadh international cover from critics "to legitimize a trial that is clearly not meeting international standards."

"They should release information regarding the circumstances, rules and outcomes of their observation," the UN rapporteur said. In the statement, she also cautions they risk being complicit in a "potential miscarriage of justice."

International NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch, have also called for transparency

'We are watching closely'

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) said it, too, has pushed Riyadh for accountability in the "horrific murder" of Khashoggi. A spokesperson for the FCO confirmed the U.K. is "part of a group of international observers" following the hearings, but stopped short of saying it would make those observations public.

"We are watching closely and expect the continuing investigation to proceed in line with internationally recognized legal standards."

Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, is demanding more transparency around the prosecution of the individuals accused of killing Khashoggi. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

Callamard, meanwhile, is demanding that the Saudi government do more.

She wants Riyadh to invite "international, independent monitors" with expertise and a proven track record in monitoring trials, such as the International Bar Association, to follow the hearings.

She also wants them to disclose what is being done to retrieve the body of the slain writer. Callamard said the extreme distress caused to Khashoggi's family by not knowing what happened to him, or where his remains are, is "recognized under international law as a form of torture."

Diplomatic disputes

Saudia Arabia has long been criticized by state and non-state actors for its record on human rights.

That was thrust into the spotlight again last summer when Saudi Arabia and Canada were involved in a Twitter-fuelled row over Riyadh's jailing of women's rights defenders.

Callamard questions whether the international community's silence in the wake of Ottawa's tweet calling for the release of the activists, and the ensuing retaliation by Riyadh, may have helped foster an atmosphere of impunity among those who carried out the murder.

The kingdom's reaction to the tweet was swift and substantial. It expelled Canada's ambassador, suspended flights to Canada on its national airline, and ordered a freeze on new trade and investment deals with Ottawa. 

"Had more countries rallied around Canada … It would have been more difficult for those people to proceed," she said.

"I feel that maybe Mr. Khashoggi would still be alive now."

While Riyadh has admitted the crime was committed by Saudi nationals, it has denied the royal family, which rules the country, was aware or involved in any way.

Multiple reports by U.S. media have said the CIA believes that the crown prince was complicit in the killing.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, seen at a major investment conference in Riyadh last October, has denied any role in the slaying of Khashoggi, who had been critical of the crown prince. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

Riyadh has demonstrated little patience for any form of public criticism as evidenced by similar spats with Germany and Sweden in the past.

Callamard insists states can't be afraid to confront bad actors.

"If you are not being told off when you do something wrong, you just keep going," she said.

Since her initial fact-finding mission to Turkey in January, Callamard has met with officials in the U.S., France, U.K. and Canada. In February she spoke with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland in Ottawa.

''We fully support the UN special rapporteur's inquiry. Canada is working with its partners, including the UN, and calls for a thorough, credible and independent international investigation,'' said a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada.

Public rebuke

Earlier this month, 36 states including Canada, New Zealand and all the countries of the European Union, signed a joint statement condemning the killing and calling on the kingdom to co-operate "with all investigations." The statement also urged officials to release women's rights' defenders.

This unprecedented action was initiated by Iceland which replaced the United States on the global-rights body. The latter withdrew last July blaming the council's "chronic bias against Israel." The U.S. did not sign on to the statement.

Sveinn Guðmarsson, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Reykjavik, said after the Khashoggi killing, his government and others felt it was "high time to end the silence in the council" and send a message that extra-judicial killings are "simply unacceptable."

Saudi Arabia, which is also a member of the 47-member rights council, rejected the call for an international probe calling it ''interference in our domestic affairs.''

Callamard believes the collective condemnation signals "a turning point in the public critique of a very powerful state."