As it slowly becomes clear that Saudi Arabia is behind the disappearance and killing of journalist and Saudi regime critic Jamal Khashoggi, the U.S. government and its allies must consider how to respond to this horrific act that defies the core values of democracy and, indeed, of humanity itself. Under growing pressure to act against the Kingdom, President Donald Trump has already declared the United States would be “punishing itself” by scrapping the $110bn U.S.-Saudi arms deal. “If they don’t buy it from us, they’re going to buy it from Russia or they’re going to buy it from China,” Mr. Trump said, according to Sky News.
Even if President Trump is unwilling to confront the Saudi government, at minimum, he should use all the policy instruments at his disposal to hold those directly responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi accountable. Indeed, the Global Magnitsky Act represents just such a device. This U.S. law allows the Executive branch to impose visa bans and targeted sanctions on individuals anywhere in the world responsible for committing human rights abuses or engaging in widespread corruption. Estonia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Lithuania and Latvia have since adopted their own Magnitsky bills.
The legislation is named after the Russian accountant and lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who was found dead in his Moscow jail cell after having been tortured and denied medical treatment. Magnitsky had discovered a massive tax fraud scheme, involving high-level Russian government officials. After his death, Congress passed a bill, which imposed sanctions on Russian officials implicated in serious human rights violations; froze the U.S. assets they held; and banned them from entering the United States.
Magnitsky was the lawyer of Bill Browder, founder and CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, the largest foreign investor in Russia until 2005. According to Browder, applying the Global Magnitsky Act to the killers of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, would be particularly powerful as Saudi officials are extremely rich and keep their money all over the world.