In 2017, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told an aide that he would “use a bullet” on Jamal Khashoggi if the journalist, who was then living in exile, didn’t cease his criticism of the Saudi government. Ultimately, a team of assassins killed Khashoggi during his visit to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.A Saudi court later sentenced five people to death for Khashoggi’s murder. Yet it is clear to anyone who knows the details of the case that those judges never dared to touch the real culprit. The awareness of this grim reality has led Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, to continue to seek genuine accountability for the killing. On Nov. 2, Cengiz will finally get her chance. On that day she will testify in Khashoggi’s case at the Permanent People’s Tribunal, a forum created by leading civic society groups to hold states to account for human rights abuses. Nov. 2 is also the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists 2021, and the session at which Cengiz will appear has been organized by three leading press freedom organizations: the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and Free Press Unlimited. Khashoggi’s case is not the only one to be investigated at the tribunal, which will address attacks on journalists around the world.
The hearings in The Hague will provide a platform for those who have been directly affected by these crimes, including the relatives and colleagues of murdered journalists, who often face threats and harassment. The Tribunal will give the survivors a platform to publicly assign blame to those who are ultimately responsible for the killings. Indeed, in some cases this is the only option that press freedom defenders have left.British Nobel Prize winner Bertrand Russell set up the first People’s Tribunal in 1966, aiming to hold the U.S. government responsible for war crimes in Vietnam. Though the tribunal lacks the power to punish anyone, it has the capacity to build public awareness and generate a legitimate body of evidence for the abuses investigated, deriving legitimacy from the involvement of world’s top jurists and journalists. The tribunal will operate within a framework based on international human rights law; all the judges and prosecutors have broad experience with these legal principles. The nine judges all have well-established reputations and global credibility.
The lead prosecutor is prominent human rights lawyer Almudena Bernabeu, supported by former International Criminal Court judge Sir Howard Morrison. Bernabeu and her team fought a long legal battle against Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, the former defense minister of El Salvador, who was ultimately deported from Florida to face justice in his home country for his alleged involvement in extrajudicial killings. Now Bernabeu will bring evidence in the People’s Tribunal against the then-defense minister of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, for allegedly ordering the murder of journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge. Rajapaksa is now the president of Sri Lanka.The opening of the tribunal will focus on the problem of impunity for the murders of journalists. Another key witness in the proceedings is Nobel Peace laureate Maria Ressa from the Philippines, who will speak out about the government’s war on press freedom there. Matthew Caruana Galizia, the son of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia (who was killed by a car bomb in 2017), and Czech investigative reporter Pavla Holcova will also testify. The hearings will shed light on an urgent problem: As things stand now, killing the truth appears to be the safest crime in the world.
The People’s Tribunal will urge the governments of Sri Lanka, Syria and Mexico to deliver justice to the families of journalists Wickrematunge, Nabil Al-Sharbaji and Miguel Ángel López Velasco. The tribunal’s hearings in the murder case of Wickrematunge will start in January, followed by similar proceedings devoted to Syrian journalist Al-Sharbaji, who was killed at a Syrian military detention center. The final hearing, at Mexico City next March, will concern the murder of Lopez. Judgments will be announced on May 3, World Press Freedom Day.A judgment of the People’s Tribunal may not put Rajapaksa and other perpetrators behind bars, but they will be named and shamed. Rajapaksa is already included in the list of “press freedom predators” drawn up by Reporters Without Borders. That rogues’ gallery also includes Mohammed bin Salman, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Chinese President Xi Jinping and many others. The judgment of the People’s Tribunal will send a message to perpetrators that they cannot hide their crimes. They must stop their war on truth.
I hope that the People’s Tribunal will mark the beginning of the end for impunity. It is time that we prevented power-hungry politicians from using their security agencies to threaten and attack those who are not ready to accept censorship — an offense against the truth that is not acceptable under international law. The People’s Tribunal has a simple message: Dictators, autocrats or terrorists may try to kill journalists like Jamal Khashoggi or Daphne Caruana Galizia — but they cannot kill the stories that these journalists are telling to the world.
Opinion by Hamid Mir
Hamid Mir is a contributing columnist for the Global Opinions section focused on Pakistani politics and geopolitical issues in the region.