The Trump administration has pushed back against allegations it was trying to cover up the killing of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi when it failed to send Congress a report determining who was responsible for his death.
“America is not covering up for a murder,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters at the US Embassy in Budapest.
Late last year, 22 bipartisan members of the Senate called for an investigation into Khashoggi’s death on 2 October 2018 and specifically into whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was responsible.
The investigation was requested under provisions of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
The Act required the US President to report back to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by 8 February on whether the Crown Prince was responsible.
Pompeo said in a letter on 8 February to Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the committee, that President Donald Trump had called for a prompt and open investigation into the death of Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post who had been critical of the Saudi royal family.
In the letter, obtained by the Associated Press, Pompeo wrote that in multiple meetings with Saudi officials and in numerous public statements, he had “emphasised the importance of a thorough, transparent and timely investigation, including accountability for those responsible for the killing”.
Pompeo also noted that the US sanctioned 17 Saudi individuals for their involvement in the killing.
But the letter did not assess whether the Crown Prince was responsible.
Democratic Senator Tim Kaine, of Virginia, where Khashoggi was living in self-imposed exile, said: “This amounts to the Trump administration aiding in the cover-up of a murder.
“America should never descend to this level of moral bankruptcy. Congress will not relent in its efforts to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for this heinous crime.”
He added in a statement yesterday: “The Trump administration has blatantly turned a blind eye to this crime, and is now refusing to provide a required report about who is responsible for his murder, despite the fact that the CIA concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally ordered Khashoggi’s killing.”
Pompeo defended the administration’s response to the death of Khashoggi, who was never seen alive again after going into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to get a document he needed for his coming marriage.
Pompeo told reporters in Budapest: “America has taken more action in response to the tragic murder of Jamal Khashoggi and will continue to take more action, continue our investigation.
“We are working diligently on that. The president has been very clear – couldn’t be more clear – as we get additional information, we will continue to hold all of those responsible accountable.”
A senior administration official told the Associated Press that the State Department regularly updated Congress on the status of the case and that the US government would continue to work to hold accountable those responsible for the death.
But some Democrats and Republicans say the sanctions, including a ban on travel to the US, are insufficient.
Lawmakers, including Menendez and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, introduced legislation Friday which would prohibit certain arms sales to Saudi Arabia in response to the killing of Khashoggi and the Saudis’ role in Yemen.
Connecticut Democrat Senator Chris Murphy told CNN’s “State of the Union” programme on Sunday that by law, when the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked the president to make a finding as to a human rights violation overseas, the President has to respond.
“That’s what the law says. So he doesn’t have an option here,” he said.
Legislators could go to court to try to make the President comply, or they could move forward with their own list of sanctions, he said, adding: “Congress doesn’t have to wait for the president to fulfil his duty. We can just make a determination ourselves.”
Late last week, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Adel al-Jubeir, told reporters in Washington that people should await the results of the trial of the suspects as well as the end of an ongoing investigation before drawing any conclusions about the case.
He insisted that the Crown Prince had no role in the slaying – that it was a “rogue operation” with no official backing.
Meanwhile, it emerged at the end of last week that Saudi Arabia quietly held a second court hearing for 11 people facing charges over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Human rights expert Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, criticised the kingdom for its lack of transparency in the proceedings over the death.
She said she learned of the hearing during her first visit to Turkey last week to investigate the murder.
Turkey, which is carrying out its own investigation into Khashoggi’s murder, has been frustrated by what Ankara says is a lack of co-operation by Riyadh.
Callamard told The Associated Press that the second hearing in Saudi Arabia took place on 31 January.
She criticised the fact that there was “insufficient public attention placed on the proceedings” and that the media was not at the hearings.
“Given the importance of the case, we should be expecting a greater presence of representatives of the media, of civil society, of a range of other governments, not just those hand-picked by the Saudi authorities,” Callamard said.
She declined to specify who told her about the hearing, but cited “reliable” sources about information “that I have been able to cross check”.
Saudi Arabia has not disclosed the defendants’ names or the names of their lawyers.
The kingdom’s chief prosecutor, Saud Al-Mojeb, has said that of 21 people taken into custody in the case, 11 have been charged and referred to trial.
Turkey has sought the extradition of the Saudi suspects but the kingdom has rejected any notion they could be tried abroad and has not allowed Turkey access to them.
Callamard said she was still waiting for a response from Saudi authorities to a request she made three weeks ago for an invitation to visit the kingdom.
On Thursday last week Callamard said in a statement issued through the UN office in Geneva that Saudi Arabia had undermined Turkey’s efforts to investigate Khashoggi’s death.
Picture: AP Photo/Hasan Jamali/File