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Jamal Khashoggi: A red line has been crossed

Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance and suspected death is a grave assault on the freedom of expression worldwide.

I am writing this with a deep sense of sadness and foreboding. If, as appears increasingly to be the case, the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is dead then I grieve the loss of a talented, deeply committed writer, a man who loved his country but was not afraid to speak out as a voice of thoughtful criticism.

I have known Jamal Khashoggi for more than 15 years. From my first meeting with him in 2002 in Jeddah, when he was the deputy editor-in-chief of Arab News, the leading Gulf English language daily, I was struck by two things: his wonderful sense of humour at some of the absurdities of life that we all share and his commitment to work towards a more open Saudi Arabia where critical voices were not a threat but a contribution to the painstakingly slow process of building a civil society in a country that was desperately in need of change.

His subsequent career underlined that commitment: he was sacked several times from editorial positions when he chose to push the envelope a little bit further than the ruling Al Sauds or the conservative religious elite was comfortable with. Still, he stayed true to what he saw as his mission.

On October 2 Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and disappeared. Saudi claims that he left the consulate shortly after he went in have been debunked by the Turkish authorities. The fear is that he was set upon and murdered almost immediately and that his body was removed in a vehicle with diplomatic plates.

If this is indeed the case, then a new red line has been crossed by Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has a track record of abducting and forcibly repatriating members of the ruling family. It has a history of incarcerating critics, be they conservative or liberal.

But until now it had never stooped to such a brazen act, using a consulate building in a foreign country as the place to murder a journalist. (The story is far different for the Saudi Shia Muslim minority who have been persecuted for decades and seen prominent members of their community, as well as ordinary citizens, executed.)

I grieve for Jamal, for his family and for his fiance. But I have, too, a great sense of foreboding that this attack represents an appalling assault on freedom of expression and on the right to speak truth to power. Not just in the Arabian Peninsula but everywhere.

There was a time not so very long ago when the British government would decry attacks on journalists and use its influence to try and ameliorate some of the worst excesses of authoritarian regimes. From the time that Jamal Khashoggi went missing, there was an opportunity for the government of the UK to speak up. The silence of my government is shameful. And if it finally does choose to speak, it will in all likelihood be far too late.

I had no such expectations that Donald Trump's White House would say something on Jamal Khashoggi's behalf. He had left Saudi Arabia for the United States in September of last year amidst a wave of arrests and soon found himself writing columns for the Washington Post. The Post, owned by the Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, has been a constant critic of Trump, part of what the president calls the "fake news" conspiracy supposedly aimed at bringing him down.

Trump has called journalists who challenge him "enemies of the people". Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, bent on driving through Vision 2030, his radical remake of the Saudi economy, saw Jamal Khashoggi as not so much the enemy of the people but rather as his own personal enemy. Khashoggi's was a voice that threatened this increasingly insecure leader and one that had to be silenced.

His Washington Post columns were the sort of writing I had come to know him for: thoughtful, tough, critical but balanced. In his first column for the Post, he wrote on behalf of himself and others who had felt the need to leave the kingdom "We want our country to thrive and to see the 2030 Vision realized. We are not opposed to our government and care deeply about Saudi Arabia. It is the only home we know or want". 

Jamal Khashoggi is a true patriot, a true Saudi and a great and courageous journalist. If he has been murdered by the Saudi authorities then the world has lost a voice of moderation and journalism has suffered a potentially lethal wound.

Dictators in countries around the world will be further emboldened to silence their critics and crush free media. But equally those dictators will see that they, like the Saudi leadership, can reach beyond their borders with an impunity that has been recklessly invigorated by Donald Trump.

And for Saudi critics living abroad and their families in the kingdom, suddenly and brutally they too have become much more vulnerable to attack.

For their sake and for the sake of imperilled journalists everywhere, Jamal Khashoggi must not be forgotten.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance. 

This article was originally published in Al Jazeera.