The West’s moral deviance

Litvinenko, Skripal & Khashoggi

In this file photo taken on November 20, 2018 US President Donald Trump speaks to the press as he departs the White House in Washington, DC. Democrats intend to probe US President Donald Trump's financial ties to determine whether they are the "hidden han

What is common between these two Russians and one Saudi national: Alexander Litvinenko, Sergei Skripal and Jamal Khashoggi?

Firstly, their respective governments wanted them dead. Two were actually killed and one — Skripal — narrowly escaped death. Secondly, their murders were ordered at the highest levels in their governments. Thirdly, all three were targeted on foreign soil. Fourthly, there was no due process of law, no warrant of arrest and no application to Interpol to have them extradited. They were simply assassinated by their respective secret agencies. Fifthly, both the Russian and Saudi governments cared two hoots for the principles of international law or norms of behaviour on foreign soil. Finally, attacks on them raised international outcries of varying degrees, exposing strange levels of moral deviance among the leaders of the West who are generally fond of championing human rights, rule of law and principles of natural justice.

Certain details first. The two Russians were double agents, in that they were earlier working for the KGB, now known as Federal Security Bureau (FSB), and then defected to Britain’s MI6, now called the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). Both Litvinenko and Skripal were poisoned, the former with a rare radioactive isotope — Polonium 210 — and the latter with a nerve agent — Novichok. It was timely medical help that saved Skripal’s life as the MI6 was well prepared to handle another attempted murder on British soil after the shock and shame of being outwitted by the KGB in Litvinenko’s murder.

Jamal Khashoggi was a journalist of the Washington Post, well known to the Saudi royal family, who subsequently became a dissident with increasing hostility to the regime. He was killed in a more primitive way, inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, initially with fingers being cut as part of an aggressive interrogation that kept on getting worse, resulting in a painful and torturous death. The fact that Khashoggi was a friend of Turkish President Recip Erdogan was an important factor in escalating the cost of his death to Saudi Arabia.

President Putin once told a journalist who was becoming a nuisance to the government for highlighting the increasing violence against reporters in 2001, “You know Aleksi, you are not a traitor, you are an enemy”. The journalist asked him what was the difference and how on earth was that supposed to be of any comfort? Putin explained: “Enemies are right in front of you, you are at war with them, then you make peace with them, and all is clear. A traitor must be destroyed, crushed,” quotes Mark Urban in his latest book ‘The Skripal Files’. This statement is revealed in the book not merely as indicative of Putin’s mindset but also as a possible directive to his agencies to deal with Russian traitors.

President Erdogan of Turkey directly blamed the Saudi Secret Service for Khashoggi’s death with abundant evidence in his hand. Firstly, the Turkish government was aware that a team of 15 Saudi nationals had flown into Istanbul in a private jet and had checked into a hotel near the consulate. Secondly, there was CCTV footage showing Khashoggi entering the Saudi Consulate but no footage of him exiting the building.

Thirdly, they had got hold of audio recordings of the so-called interrogation from the cellphone of his girlfriend who was waiting outside the consulate. It is also suspected that Turkish security service had planted bugs inside the consulate and that provided more gory details. This was the tape that was probably handed over to the CIA, which made a conclusive finding that it was a pre-meditated murder. The CIA also had additional evidence that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) had ordered it.

Britain reacted to the killing of Litvinenko almost after 10 years when the enquiry commission submitted its report in 2016. It had earlier expelled four Russian diplomats and then fixed the responsibility for the killing on Andrei Lugovi and Dmitry Kouvtun, both ex-KGB personnel who were colleagues of Litvinenko. It wanted Russia to hand them over for trial, which, of course, never happened. Lugovi was made a Senator by the Kremlin and granted immunity from the long arm of law.

Prime Minister Theresa May, however, reacted much more sharply to the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter in March 2018 by expelling 23 Russian diplomats and freezing all Russian assets in the UK. More than 20 European allies expelled over 100 Russian diplomats and officials in solidarity with UK. Such was the European anger against Russia’s brazen methods of eliminating its traitors.

The US, too, expelled about 60 Russian diplomats, but even as he announced the expulsion, President Donald Trump seemed as if he was forced to do so under pressure of the ‘Deep State’, as it went against his deep-rooted desire to build a warm personal relationship with Putin.

What has been the response of Europe and the US to Khashoggi’s death? For weeks after his killing, the governments of UK, France and Germany kept calling for a credible Saudi-Turkish investigation into the killing. Only Germany took the matter further by announcing a freeze on arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

Of all the reactions, President Trump’s reaction is the most remarkable, truly reflecting the man as he makes no bones as to where America’s interests lie. He refused to listen to the tape that Turkey handed over, nor did he agree with the CIA’s assessment that the murder was ordered by MbS himself. His simple argument is that $110 billion in arms deals with Saudi Arabia is at stake and thus thousands of jobs in the US. Again, it is the ‘Deep State’ (the military–industrial complex) that is guiding Trump. 

Trump declared, in his disarmingly agnostic manner, “we may never know all the facts surrounding the murder of Jamal Khashoggi…It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event -– maybe he did and maybe he didn’t.”

Trump is all deviance and no morality. And he sports his deviance like a badge of honour dedicated to a higher cause –- ‘America First’. No human rights, no rule of law can supersede that. The Europeans are not so manifestly brazen, not yet.

(The writer is Visiting Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation)

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