The United States is focused on “future conduct” of Saudi Arabia and will expect Riyadh to improve its human rights record, a U.S. spokesman said on Monday, after Washington imposed sanctions on some Saudis for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi but fell short of sanctions against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The United States on Friday declassified a report that said the crown prince approved an operation in 2018 to capture or kill Khashoggi and issued some sanctions against Saudi nationals and entities.
Washington’s failure to penalize the crown prince has been criticized by rights groups and others, raising questions about accountability and the Biden administration’s pledge to make human rights a foreign policy priority.
Prince Mohammed, the 35-year old de facto ruler, has denied any involvement in Khashoggi’s killing, for which eight people were jailed in Saudi Arabia last year, but has said he bears ultimate responsibility because it happened on his watch.
“We are very focused on future conduct and that is part of why we have cast this not as a rupture, but as a recalibration” of U.S.-Saudi relations, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said at a press briefing.
“We are trying to get to the systemic issues underlying the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” Price said.
The United States welcomed the recent release of two human rights activists in Saudi Arabia, Price said, but asked Riyadh to do more by lifting the travel ban on them.
“We are urging Saudi Arabia to take additional steps – to lift travel bans on those released, to commute sentences and resolve cases such as those women’s rights activists and others,” he said.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Monday that the United States reserved the right to sanction Mohammed bin Salman.
Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who wrote opinion columns for the Washington Post critical of the crown prince’s policies, was killed and dismembered by a team of operatives linked to the prince in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
On Friday, the United States singled out the Rapid Intervention Force, or RIF, a unit of the Saudi royal guard that has engaged in counter dissident operations. It also issued visa bans on 76 Saudis.
Price said he could not disclose the names of the 76 people and declined to say whether or not Mohammed bin Salman was among them. The United States has urged Saudi Arabia to disband the RIF, Price added.
In related developments Saudi Arabia’s U.N. ambassador said on Monday a U.S. intelligence report that implicated the kingdom’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi had presented no firm evidence.
“The report .. is based on could’ve, should’ve and would’ve and does not rise to anywhere close to proving the accusation beyond reasonable doubt,” ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi said in a Twitter post.
“The Prince courageously accepted moral responsibility, presented the accused to the justice system, and pledged to reform the intelligence organizations. Case closed!,” he added.
Prince Mohammed has denied any involvement in Khashoggi’s killing, for which eight people were jailed in Saudi Arabia last year, but has said he bears ultimate responsibility because it happened on his watch.
The U.S. report released on Friday based its assessment that Prince Mohammed approved an operation to capture or kill Khashoggi on the prince’s control of decision-making, direct involvement of a key adviser and his own protective detail, and his “support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi.”
The Saudi government has rejected the report’s findings and repeating its previous statements that Khashoggi’s killing was a heinous crime by a rogue group.