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Senators seek to punish Saudis over Khashoggi murder, Yemen war

Demonstrators protest on Oct. 9, 2018, at the entrance of Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, over the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

DEPO PHOTOS/ZUMA PRESS/TNS

By DANIEL FLATLEY | Bloomberg | Published: February 7, 2019

Legislation to punish Saudi Arabia for the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and for its role in the conflict in Yemen was introduced Thursday by a bipartisan group of senators who said the Trump administration failed to hold a key ally to account.

The bill would prohibit some arms sales to Saudi Arabia and bar U.S. in-flight refueling of Saudi coalition aircraft involved in the civil war in Yemen. The administration has said it already has halted the refueling.

The introduction of the bill comes ahead of what Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, described as a Feb. 8 deadline for the Trump administration to determine whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is personally responsible for Khashoggi's murder inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October.

Menendez and former senator Bob Corker, who was then chairman of Foreign Relations, triggered the investigation in October by sending a letter to the administration invoking the Magnitsky Act of 2016, which gives the administration 120 days to make a decision on new sanctions.

Even with bipartisan backing, the measure faces an uncertain fate in the GOP-controlled Senate. Lawmakers from both parties have expressed outrage over the killing, but Republicans are often hesitant to buck President Donald Trump.

Trump has sought to emphasize the importance of the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia while questioning whether Prince Mohammed ordered Khashoggi killed. "Maybe he did, and maybe he didn't," Trump said in a statement in November.

The Senate adopted a non-binding resolution in December saying Prince Mohammed is responsible for Khashoggi's murder. The Senate also voted that month to withdraw U.S. support for Saudi Arabia's war against Houthi rebels in Yemen in the aftermath of Khashoggi's killing. The war in Yemen has become the world's worst humanitarian disaster.

But the House – then under Republican control – didn't take up the measures.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Trump ally, has signed on as a co-sponsor of the legislation initiated by Menendez of New Jersey. Two other Republicans and three Democrats also are co-sponsoring it.

"Is it OK to allow Saudi Arabia to continue, even if it's an ally, with impunity?" Menendez said. "Is it OK to have massive amounts of our equipment fall into the hands of those who wish us harm? Is it OK to kill a journalist and have no consequence as a result of it? Those are the questions that members of the Senate are going to have to answer."

The Trump administration has already imposed sanctions on Saudis accused of involvement in the killing of Khashoggi but hasn't targeted Prince Mohammed, who has denied having any role.

"While Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, the behavior of the Crown Prince – in multiple ways – has shown disrespect for the relationship and made him, in my view, beyond toxic," Graham said in a statement. "I fully realize we have to deal with bad actors and imperfect situations on the international stage. However, when we lose our moral voice, we lose our strongest asset."
 

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