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It's been two years since the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents at the Kingdom’s Istanbul consulate. At the end of his life, Khashoggi was among Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s highest-profile critics. The new Showtime film “Kingdom of Silence” charts Khashoggi’s personal evolution, as his allies relaunch his pro-democracy organization. Nick Schifrin reports.
In early October, 2018, Washington Post columnist and Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi walked into Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in pursuit of documents for his impending marriage.
He did not know he was the one being pursued. His brutal murder there became a global story. He was perhaps the most high-profile critic of his homeland's monarchy.
Now a new film charts his life, his grisly death, his legacy, and where Saudi Arabia is right now.
Here's Nick Schifrin.
Jamal Khashoggi's murder snuffed out a critic of today's Saudi government. Two years later, his allies are trying to ensure his silenced voice can still be heard. A new film shows a complex man who never completed his final act.
Lawrence Wright is a writer and the executive producer of "Kingdom of Silence."
I see Jamal's life in three acts, just like a classical drama.
That first act was in Afghanistan, covering the U.S.-backed Mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union. Khashoggi helped make the leading Arab anti-Russian fighter famous.
I do not deny that I had sympathy toward Afghan cause, because I myself come out from Islamic circles. And it was a big story, which kind of made my name in the field of journalism.
But after 9/11, Khashoggi turned against bin Laden's manipulated version of Islam. Khashoggi wrote this, as read by an actor:
"We must ensure that our children can never be influenced by extremist ideas, like those 15 Saudis who were misled into piloting them and all of us into the jaws of hell."
Khashoggi joined the Saudi government and championed U.S.-Saudi relations, including the war in Iraq, but then his third act. The Arab Spring birthed his belief in freedom of speech as the key to regional reform.
He started a news channel called Al Arab designed to give Saudis access to uncensored information. But the new Saudi King Salman, and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, rejected Al Arab and free media as a threat.
Khashoggi had to flee Saudi Arabia. He watched as MBS persecuted his critics and tolerated no dissent.
Saudi activist Yahya Assiri spoke at a recent Project on Middle East Democracy event.
If you go, for example, to challenge the regime, to criticize the regime, they will take you to prison.
Khashoggi became an MBS critic in the pages of The Washington Post and wrote this:
"Saudi Arabia wasn't always this repressive. I have left my home, my family, and my job. And I am raising my voice."
That cost him his life. He walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and was murdered by Saudi agents close to MBS. One even put on Khashoggi's clothes and walked out of the consulate to try and deceive the CCTV cameras.
Sarah Leah Whitson:
This kind of grotesque barbarism, having some guy trot out his clothes, it was just too much.
Sarah Leah Whitson is a human rights advocate, and was a longtime friend of Khashoggi's. Last week, she relaunched an organization that Khashoggi created.
DAWN, Democracy for the Arab World Now.
The only solution that will bring lasting peace and ability, security, prosperity, but also dignity, to the people of the region was democracy and human rights.
Initially, MBS was considered a reformer. On a 2018 U.S. tour, he met Silicon Valley executives, the U.N. secretary-general, and President Trump.
President Donald Trump:
We have become very good friends.
For the Trump administration, MBS has helped lead an anti-Iran alliance and bought American weapons, including for the Saudi-backed war in Yemen that has killed tens of thousands of civilians.
Back home, MBS has ushered in dramatic reforms, trying to curb the conservative clergy's power and allowing women to attend movies and sporting events.
Jamal believed that MBS offering some freedom, some reforms, and taking away others. The one that he was taking away was perhaps the most valuable, which was the ability to speak, to have an opinion.
DAWN is designed to document those restrictions and call out governments who support Arab autocrats.
We need to focus very specifically on the way in which the American people, the American citizenry are enabling and promoting a dictatorship and tyranny in the Middle East.
The Saudi government said it punished Khashoggi's murderers.
But human rights organizations say Saudi senior officials and the man the CIA assessed likely ordered the murder walked free.
I hoped that there would be some kind of accountability, but there's not. At the governmental level, there's just not.
While judicial justice evaded us, MBS has paid a huge price, and in the court of public opinion, he has been found guilty.
Last month, a group of Saudis in exile formed the country's first opposition party. The group hopes to institute democracy as a form of government in the kingdom. That's not expected anytime soon, but Wright believes Saudi's ruling family faces reckoning.
People are beginning to wonder, do we really need these people?
I think, at that point, Saudi Arabia's going to face a terrible crisis, and it would have done better if Jamal had been here to help show them the way.
Khashoggi didn't live to see that final act, but his death helped guarantee that the conversation he started in life will continue.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.
Watch the Full Episode
Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
Layla Quran is a general assignment producer for PBS NewsHour. She was previously a foreign affairs reporter and producer.
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