In swipe at Saudi Arabia, Washington City Council renames street in front of embassy after Khashoggi

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In a pointed rebuke to one of the United States’ oldest allies in the Middle East, the City Council in Washington, D.C., has passed a bill renaming the street in front of the Saudi Embassy after slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Khashoggi was brutally murdered inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 by a team of Saudi assassins that the U.S. intelligence community has concluded was dispatched by the country’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to as MBS.

The idea behind the bill, which passed unanimously on Monday, is to remind the world of the dangers faced by journalists all over the world and that a free press is “fundamental to our democracy,” according to its chief sponsor, Councilmember Brooke Pinto.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

But another major motivation, said supporters, is that the renaming of the block in front of the embassy “Jamal Khashoggi Way” will serve to permanently shame and embarrass Saudi diplomats — and all who visit them — for a government-ordered assassination whose architects have still gone unpunished.

“Jamal Khashoggi Way will serve as a daily reminder for the Saudi Embassy and the Saudi government that Jamal Khashoggi and his legacy are just as powerful in death as in life, and that the principles of human rights and democracy for which he gave his life burn bright in those letters spelling out his name and in that sign right just across the street,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, a human rights organization founded by Khashoggi four months before his murder.

Pinto’s proposal was featured last summer in the conclusion to the eight-part Yahoo News “Conspiracyland” podcast, “The Secret Lives and Brutal Death of Jamal Khashoggi.” The series, based on exclusive interviews and newly unearthed documents, examined how the journalist evolved from a longtime spokesman of the Saudi regime into an impassioned critic of his country’s authoritarian ruler, MBS, and how the Trump White House helped cover up his killing.

The bill’s passage comes during a week when there was renewed attention on Khashoggi’s murder after French police, acting on the basis of a Turkish warrant, arrested a suspected member of the Saudi hit squad, Khalid Aedh al-Otaibi, while he was preparing to board a plane at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. The French later released the suspect, concluding it was a case of mistaken identity.

But the incident underscored the still murky nature of efforts to impose any measure of accountability for a brazen assassination that caused an international uproar. In a statement, the Saudi government insisted that those convicted of the murder during a closed-door trial in Saudi Arabia in 2019 are “serving their sentences” in that country.

A poster of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi
A protester holds a poster bearing the image of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at an event in Istanbul marking the second anniversary of his assassination. (Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images)

But there is no public record of who was convicted. Notes obtained by Yahoo News that were taken by Turkish diplomats who attended the trial (and that were also highlighted during the “Conspiracyland” podcast) suggest that al-Otaibi was not among those charged despite the fact that the U.S. government and a United Nations report have both listed him as a member of the hit squad. The U.N. report describes al-Otaibi as a member of the Saudi Royal Guard who was “seen in the presence of the Crown Prince” during a 2017 visit to the United States.

The City Council measure is expected to be signed shortly by Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser and, as with all D.C. legislation, will then go to Congress for a 30-day review before becoming law. But D.C. officials have indicated that they expect to unveil the new signage in a public ceremony next month. The Saudi Embassy, where the signage will be installed, is directly across the street from another Washington landmark known for scandal: the Watergate hotel.

The Saudi Embassy did not respond to a request for comment.