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Murdered Saudi Arabian writer Jamal Khashoggi and a group of journalists were named, collectively, as “Time Magazine’s” 2018 Person of the Year.
USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – The State Department labeled Jamal Khashoggi’s murder a human rights violation committed by Saudi Arabian government agents in a report released Wednesday.

The report, which details human rights abuses around the world, makes no mention of whether Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohamed bin Salman, played a role in The Washington Post columnist’s death.

The State Department’s top human rights official declined to say what role, if any, the CIA’s assessment of the case played in the account of Khashoggi’s death. The CIA concluded that the crown prince directed Khashoggi’s murder, according to multiple lawmakers briefed by the agency’s director, Gina Haspel. 

“When we do these reports, we seek all relevant sources of information, including U.S. intelligence information,” Ambassador Michael Kozak, who leads the State Department’s Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Bureau, said Wednesday in a briefing on the annual report, which is required by Congress. Kozak said he would not discuss what intelligence information he and other officials reviewed with respect to Saudi Arabia or any other country. 

In its account of Khashoggi’s death, the State Department report says Saudi government agents “carried out the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 2.” Khashoggi was a fierce critic of the crown prince, who is the country’s de facto ruler.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman “pledged to hold all individuals involved accountable, regardless of position or rank” and 11 suspects have been indicted by the kingdom’s public prosecutor’s office, the human rights report notes. The Saudi government has not publicly named any of those 11 suspects or provided any detailed account of where its investigation stands. 

“In other cases, the government did not punish officials accused of committing human rights abuses, contributing to an environment of impunity,” the report says.

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Kozak defended the omission of the crown prince’s name in connection with Khashoggi.

“We can all have our suspicions or speculations, but our effort is fact-driven rather than opinion-driven,” he said. He repeated the Saudi government’s assertions that it is still investigating Khashoggi’s death.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo singled out four countries – Iran, South Sudan, Nicaragua and China – in brief remarks on the report, which examines the human rights records of more than 200 countries and territories.

China “is in a league of its own when it comes to human rights violations,” Pompeo said. He pointed to the Chinese government’s repressive campaign against Muslim minority groups.

“Today, more than 1 million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs and other Muslims are interned in re-education camps designed to erase their religious and ethnic identities,” Pompeo said. “The government also is increasing its persecution against Christians, Tibetans and anyone who espouses different views from those or advocates those of government – or advocates change in government.”

The human rights report is the first released with Pompeo at the helm of the State Department. The Trump administration sparked controversy with last year’s report by eliminating any assessment of women’s reproductive rights. Under the Obama administration, the annual report included information for each country about women’s access to contraception and abortion, as well as data on maternal mortality. 

Under Pompeo, this year’s report again omits that information and instead details coerced abortion and involuntary sterilization practices in each country. The change sparked criticism from leading human rights advocates. 

“Neglecting to include these rights in this assessment is an affront to women and girls, LGBT people, young people, and human rights defenders everywhere,” Joanne Lin, national director of advocacy and governmental relations at Amnesty International USA, said in a statement. 

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Kozak said the State Department stopped offering data on reproductive rights because it suggested an “international right to abortion.”  

The report details systematic and severe human rights abuses in North Korea, including arbitrary killings, torture and prison camps “in which conditions were often harsh and life threatening.” 

Kozak conceded that U.S. engagement with North Korea, including President Donald Trump’s personal efforts at diplomacy with dictator Kim Jong Un, had not resulted in any improvement in the country’s human rights record. 

“It’s still one of the worst human rights situations in the world. It has not improved,” he said. He said the United States is at “the forefront of trying to expose what North Korea is doing and bring international attention to it.” 

Human rights groups also took issue with the report’s description of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights, which used to be labeled “occupied territories” because they are under Israeli control. Last year’s report also included that change, which is particularly sensitive because Palestinians see the Trump administration as heavily biased toward Israel.  

Kozak said “occupied territory” carries a legal definition, so the State Department opted to use a geographical description instead. 

More: Exclusive: Pompeo on the failed North Korea talks, Otto Warmbier and his own trip to Iowa

More: ‘Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!’ Trump says US will stand by Saudis despite Khashoggi murder

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