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Khashoggi Plan for Rights Group Realized

People hold posters of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, near the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, marking the two-year anniversary of his death, Oct. 2, 2020.
People hold posters of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, near the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, marking the two-year anniversary of his death, Oct. 2, 2020.
Khashoggi Plan for Rights Group Realized
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“I can speak when so many cannot.”

Jamal Khashoggi wrote those words in The Washington Post in September 2017. It was the first opinion piece he wrote for the newspaper. In it, Khashoggi described the situation in his home country, Saudi Arabia. He said there was no freedom of speech there. He said it was “unbearable” for those with bravery to speak their minds.

Now, two years after his death at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, friends of Khashoggi have made his dream a reality. That dream was a rights organization that holds Middle East governments responsible for their actions. He also wanted the group to give activists and exiles a platform to speak openly about abuses.

Khashoggi developed the idea for Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN, in June 2018, a few months before his death. At a press conference this week, the group’s members talked about the need for human rights protections in the Middle East and North Africa. They also put together plans to identify abuses in the area.

DAWN will first examine three allies of the United States: Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. It will document how governments oppress critics and human rights activists, says Sarah Leah Whitson. She is executive director of the rights group.

FILE - Sarah Leah Whitson (r), then the Human Rights Watch MENA director, speaks during a press conference in Sanaa, Yemen, Jan. 27, 2014.
FILE - Sarah Leah Whitson (r), then the Human Rights Watch MENA director, speaks during a press conference in Sanaa, Yemen, Jan. 27, 2014.

All three countries have poor records on supporting independent journalism. That information comes from Reporters Without Borders, or RSF, a media watch group. Under RSF’s rating system for press freedom, 1 is the freest and 180 is the least free. The group gave Saudi Arabia a rating of 170. Egypt got 166, with United Arab Emirates receiving 131.

Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists, RSF noted last week. RSF has called on the Group of 20 countries to hold Saudi Arabia responsible for its rights abuses. Leaders of G-20 countries are to meet in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, in November.

Platform for free speech

Sarah Leah Whitson met Khashoggi while she was working as Middle East director for the organization Human Rights Watch. She remembers him as “a very gentle and soft-spoken man but very firm in his beliefs.”

In December 2016, Khashoggi talked to Whitson about Mohammed bin Salman. He was one of Saudi Arabia’s leaders at the time and had banned Khashoggi from writing publicly. Seven months later, Khashoggi fled Saudi Arabia, leaving his grandchildren behind.

Whitson told VOA that he felt so much pain for having to leave his family. And he would show her pictures of his grandchildren on his phone. “This is a real human being, not just a political mind, but someone who had to make personal sacrifices” for his values, she said.

From exile, Khashoggi continued to criticize Saudi Arabia for harassing and jailing people who questioned the government’s policies.

The United States Central Intelligence Agency investigated his death, as did a United Nations expert on illegal killings. They found that high-level Saudi officials, including Mohammed bin Salman, were involved.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not answer VOA’s requests for comment on Khashoggi’s killing or the country’s human rights record.

Bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, has denied ordering Khashoggi’s killing. But he has said to U.S. media that he claims “full responsibility” as the nation’s unofficial leader. Saudi Arabia later put 11 unnamed people on trial for the killing. Five people were sentenced to death and three to prison.

Governments in the Middle East and North Africa continue to restrain critics. In the years since Khashoggi’s death, the fight against free speech in Saudi Arabia has continued, Whitson said. And talking to foreign media and criticizing the Saudi government are still offenses that lead to jail time.

“What [bin Salman’s] message is to the Saudi people is that there is no desire to hear their voices,” she said.

But political exiles will be given a voice through DAWN’s website, called “Democracy in Exile.” It publishes stories and commentary on human rights abuses.

Egyptian journalist Abdelrahman Youssef writes for the website. He wrote about the Arab Spring protests in 2011 and the military ouster of Egypt’s government in 2013. The next year, he left Egypt for the United States.

Egypt has jailed large numbers of journalists, often on charges of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. That is the party of ousted leader Mohamed Morsi, which the current government has called a terrorist organization. Over 500 websites, including news agencies, have been blocked. And individuals risk arrest for social media posts, RSF reports.

The Egyptian Embassy in Washington, D.C. did not answer VOA’s request for comment.

Demand for action

Fighting rights abuses by governments is central to DAWN’s mission, Whitson said. And it is dangerous for countries such as the United States to legitimize governments that punish their critics.

President Donald Trump and his administration expressed support for the Saudi crown prince when other countries criticized him after the killing of Khashoggi.

Egyptian journalist Youssef said that his work on Democracy in Exile will include writing on leaders of democracies who support dictatorships.

I’m Alice Bryant.

Eric Neugeboren reported this story for VOA News. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

unbearableadj. too bad, harsh, or extreme to be accepted or endured

consulaten. the building where a consul lives and works

platformn. something that allows someone to tell a large number of people about an idea

journalismn. the activity or job of collecting, writing, and editing news stories for newspapers, magazines, television, or radio

harassv. subject to aggressive pressure or intimidation

missionn. a task that you consider to be a very important duty

legitimizev. to make legitimate