The UN leaked a Saudi threat to assassinate an official to make sure the killing didn’t happen

Agnes Callamard
Hatice Cengiz, the fiancee of murdered Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Agnès Callamard at the Press Club in Brussels in 2019. Dursun Aydemir/Getty Images
  • The US and French governments were told about a Saudi threat to kill the UN researcher investigating the Kashoggi murder.
  • The UN was annoyed that neither government overtly reacted.
  • So last week, the UN organized a leak to make sure the Saudis don’t make good on the threat.
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United Nations officials informed French and American intelligence services last year that a Saudi official appeared to threaten the life of a UN researcher investigating the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, sources told Insider. But neither government reacted overtly to the news. So the UN and the official – angry at the lack of action – leaked the threat to the media this week, according to two European officials familiar with the incident.

Agnes Callamard, an independent French human rights investigator working for the UN, has aggressively investigated the 2018 murder of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, much to the dismay of Saudi officials. The Saudis called a meeting in January 2020 to complain about her, two European Union security officials told Insider. Their account confirmed the account given publicly earlier in the week by Callamard to the Guardian newspaper.

The threat, which the UN confirmed the day after Callamard disclosed it to the Guardian, involved the Saudi chairman for the Human Rights Commission, Awwad Alawwad. He told UN officials at least twice that if Callamard did not ease off her investigation and anti-Saudi rhetoric there were people willing to kill her. At one point he indicated he was about to phone such people during the meeting. UN officials immediately ended the meeting, warned Callamard and passed along the threats to US and French intelligence.

‘The accounts of the meeting are true’

“The accounts of the meeting are true, the Saudis wanted to pressure the UN to back off the investigation and he threatened Callamard to her UN colleagues,” said a French official who had been briefed on the matter but refused to be identified speaking about international diplomacy. “I will not explain the steps that France took to ensure her safety because these are not public matters, but action was taken.”

Al Awwad used Twitter on Thursday to admit he was the official and had been in the meeting but denied making threats.

Both the French and Belgian officials said the UN account of the meeting was far more credible than al Awwad’s denial.

Fourteen months later, despite believing the threat was real, it appears Callamard and the UN were not satisfied with the official reactions from France and the US, said a Belgian police official who works closely with international criminal investigations, such as the Khashoggi case.

‘They told the Americans but this was during the Trump administration, which never had any enthusiasm for investigating’

“They went to the French about it but it was handled behind closed doors with the Saudis and it’s obvious this does not satisfy the UN or Callamard,” said the Belgian. “They told the Americans but this was during the Trump administration, which never had any enthusiasm for investigating it at all.”

Making the threat public now serves two purposes, according to the Belgian official:

  • First, it draws attention to the threat to the extent it would almost be impossible for Saudi to further insult or target Callamard.
  • Second, it will pressure the new Biden administration to take even further steps to punish the Saudis.

“I would have made the threat public last year immediately,” said the Belgian. “Because that would stop any further harassment immediately. But leaking it in this manner now that Trump is gone and Biden clearly furious at the Saudis over the matter already, this could spark new pressure on the Saudis.”

Some want more sanctions against the Saudis

The Biden administration, in a stark departure from Trump’s refusal to directly blame the Saudi government for the Khashoggi’s murder, last month released a summary of the US intelligence assessment that pinned blame on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s entourage and stopped arms transfers to the Saudis over the war in Yemen.

But critics in both parties have demanded even firmer sanctions and actions against the crown prince.