Published 7:12 PM EDT Oct 8, 2018
Early last Tuesday afternoon, the tall, bespectacled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi walked into a consulate of his native country in Turkey.
His reason for entering the office, tucked into a backstreet of Istanbul's business district, was his desire to marry a Turkish woman. Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who writes columns for The Washington Post, needed a Saudi document to certify his divorced status.
His fiancée says she waited outside the consulate and Khashoggi, 59, never reappeared.
As of Monday afternoon, his disappearance remained a mystery, but it might have everything to do with his fierce commentary on the Saudi monarchy, particularly Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's iron-fisted effort to staunch dissent even as he institutes widely heralded reforms.
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Turkish officials told reporters they believe that Khashoggi was murdered inside the consulate by a team of Saudi agents flown in ahead of his scheduled visit, his body dismembered and carried out in boxes.
The Saudi kingdom called the allegations "baseless" and claimed that Khashoggi left the building alive, though it offered no evidence despite an array of video cameras around the consulate.
The case serves as a chilling reminder that the risks journalists take are legion. Around the world, at least 48 have been killed this year.
From self-imposed exile in the United States, Khashoggi's constructive critiques — as a former regime insider — were stinging. His targets included corruption, royal family extravagances and Saudi's brutal war of attrition in Yemen. He argued that Salman's reforms — to include allowing women to drive — masked an opportunity to centralize power through widespread arrests.
"I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice," Khashoggi wrote last year. "I can speak when so many cannot. ... We Saudis deserve better."
If it turns out that Saudi authorities reached out from Riyadh to silence this voice, it would be an act of cold-blooded brazenness reserved for the world's most brutal dictatorships, one that would fly in the face of American values.
Yet, for several days, the Trump administration remained largely silent in public, feeding speculation that the president’s attacks on the press might have led the Saudis to believe they could act with impunity against a leading critic. Finally, on Monday evening, Trump expressed concern and said he doesn’t like what he has been hearing.
The president and many of his advisers, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, see a strong, regional ally in the crown prince. The Saudi kingdom has become the largest purchaser of American arms. But this relationship has Faustian dimensions. The U.S. weaponry has helped the Saudis wage a disastrous war against Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Since 2014, that war has left 15,000 dead or injured, 190,000 refugees and 8.4 million at risk of starvation. A United Nations panel of experts concluded in August that both sides of the conflict could be guilty of war crimes.
The world awaits the results of a Turkish investigation into Khashoggi's disappearance. The moment demands that the Trump administration start asking hard questions, insist on thorough answers and — if the worst fears are realized — re-evaluate America's relationship with the House of Saud.
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