For Ms. Hatice Cengiz, remembering what happened on October 2, 2018 is a painful and hard exercise. That day, her fiancé Jamal Khashoggi, a well-known Saudi, U.S.-based journalist, went to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to pick up the documents required for their soon-to-be marriage. He never left that building alive. “Actually, I don’t want to remember that day, because I didn’t know that my life would have totally changed. It was the initiation of a highly painful and sad period for me,” the Turkish researcher explained.
We met in a hotel in Manhattan, just a few blocks away from the imposing United Nations Headquarters where the world leaders have gathered for the 74th session of the General Assembly. Cengiz came to New York, along with the Italian senator and former Minister of Foreign Affairs Emma Bonino, to give a speech during a conference organized by the NGO “No Peace Without Justice” at the U.N. A purple hijab framed her deep eyes, that, while speaking about Jamal, couldn’t help but mist with tears.
The world is only aware of Jamal Khashoggi’s public face, especially his journalistic work and his harsh and brave criticism against the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and his father, King Salman. It is no coincidence that in September 2017, Mr. Khashoggi decided to flee his country and go into a self-imposed exile–a phrase he never really liked to use. However, in the eyes of Cengiz, he was much more than a talented and courageous reporter; he was her everything.
“I miss him like a friend, a husband, sometimes also like a brother and a father,” she said. Cengiz and Khashoggi had met at a conference in Istanbul. At first, she didn’t think they could develop “a special relationship,” as she put it, but then things unexpectedly changed.
In the days that immediately preceded the fatal appointment at the Consulate, the Washington Post journalist didn’t suspect that his life could be at risk. He had already visited the diplomatic headquarters a few days before, on September 28, and he had been warmly welcomed. Before that very first appointment, Jamal was afraid. “We considered all the possibilities,” and even “the worst-case scenario occurred to us,” Cengiz explained. However, during his first visit, the Consulate officials asked him about his new life, offered him coffee and tea, and congratulated him on his marriage. They graciously talked with him for about 30 minutes. Jamal, thereby, relaxed and decided to schedule another visit to deal with the last bureaucratic procedures. In Cengiz’s view, his murder must have been planned between those two appointments.
Despite her unwavering and outspoken commitment to seeking justice, Khashoggi’s fiancée didn’t seem concerned about her life. “I am not afraid,” she kept repeating, “why should I be?” “I was afraid in the first days after Jamal’s murder,” she then conceded. At the time, she was primarily worried because of his personal belongings. “The following week, I brought everything to the Turkish government,” she recalled.
Only a few hours before this interview, crown prince Salman’s statement on Khashoggi’s murder started hitting the news. “I get all the responsibility,” he said to PBS, “because it happened under my watch.” However, according to Cengiz, he was only assuming the responsibility on an “official” level, as the actual chief of the government, while at the same time implying that he didn’t know anything about the plot to murder the journalist. This version of the story dramatically contradicts the report issued by the U.N. Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard, that put on paper “credible evidence” of prince Salman’s role in Khashoggi’s murder. However, when asked about her personal view, Cengiz didn’t appear to have a clear answer: “I really don’t know,” she said.
From Saudi Arabia, nobody—neither officials from the government, nor journalists—have tried to reach out to her since Khashoggi’s murder. However, even if they had, she wouldn’t have talked to them. “My government asked them many questions and they have not answered yet,” she pointed out.
On the other hand, a few days after her fiancé’s murder, Cengiz received a notable invitation from the U.S. government: President Trump proposed a meeting at the White House. The same day, Hatice received a call from the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. She kindly declined. “The United States didn’t do anything for Jamal’s case,” she explained. “The U.S. has a responsibility towards the entire world, not towards me, per se. We are talking about the killing of a journalist who was an American resident.” Indeed, President Trump made it very clear that his priority was to protect the U.S.’ economic ties with Saudi Arabia. That “lack of reaction,” as Cengiz put it, “definitely damaged the image of the United States of America as the defenders of fundamental and human rights.”
According to the Turkish researcher, the U.S. is not the only country that should be blamed for not doing enough. In her view, the other members of the U.N. Security Council should have acted differently as well. “What more needs to happen before you act and call for an international inquiry?” she later asked at the “No Peace Without Justice” event at the U.N.
Cengiz also expressed a critical view of Italy’s behavior. “It is a European Union member state and should have adopted a clearer attitude,” she said. “What I’m talking about,” she then clarified, “is not punishing Saudi Arabia or Saudi people. I want perpetrators to be brought to justice, and I want them to be punished. Italy and other EU member states could have condemned Saudi Arabia for this murder, or should have made a statement, or could have invited Saudi Arabia to at least make a statement about this incident.”
Before our meeting, Khashoggi’s fiancée had already heard about Giulio Regeni–the Italian researcher brutally killed in Egypt in 2016–but she didn’t know the details of the story. As she asked repeatedly why Mr. Regeni was murdered, former Minister Bonino, who participated in this conversation, recounted Italy’s diplomatic fight to obtain truth and justice. “Jamal’s case is a very political case,” Cengiz then pointed out, arguably realizing the similarities between those two incidents. “You can easily imagine why they killed him.”
In her view, Turkey is handling the situation quite well. She was able to meet with President Tayyip Recep Erdogan, who, she said, “has been seriously following this case.” Also, international media showed her profound solidarity. “I was very surprised by the fact that, even beyond the day of the official statement about the murder, Jamal’s killing has continued to hit the news. His murder shocked the entire world,” Cengiz explained. Hatice herself was contacted by several journalists who had known Jamal. “He was so close to the heart of his colleagues,” she said. However, the media’s attention alone is not enough. “On the other hand, we got to realize that life is not all about the media’s power. We also need political power to resolve Jamal’s killing,” she pointed out.
Asked about the impact of Khashoggi’s murder on freedom of the press in the Middle East, Cengiz showed a surprisingly positive attitude. According to her, the “sacrifice” of her fiancé has started to engender some promising effects in Saudi Arabia. After his killing, “the Saudi administration started to release some intellectuals and journalists very quickly, and they were heard at the court at least,” she said. “Now,” she added, “the Saudi Government recognizes that nothing could stay concealed behind closed doors anymore.” According to Cengiz, that was always one of the purposes of the Washington Post reporter while he was still alive. “We will see, of course, the implications in other Middle Eastern countries in the medium and long term,” she then pointed out.
Obviously, as Cengiz put it, “Nothing will ever compensate for his loss.” That pain is indelibly imprinted in her intense and vibrant gaze. Along with some of Khashoggi’s colleagues and friends, on October 2–the anniversary of his death—the Turkish researcher will be commemorating him in front of the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. In several other cities all over the world, other events will take place to remember the journalist and to call for truth and justice. On the verge of that painful and meaningful day, Hatice made a solemn promise: “All together, we are planning to give a powerful message to the entire world.”