WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau demurred Friday on the darkening mystery surrounding the fate of Jamal Khashoggi, saying only that Canada has "serious issues" with reports the Washington Post columnist was killed by Saudi Arabian operatives inside that country's consulate in Turkey.
But he insisted Canada has done plenty when it comes to calling the kingdom on the diplomatic carpet over its dismal human rights record.
"We have been extremely active both in private and in public over many years now around our concern for human rights in Saudi Arabia, and we will continue to be clear and strong in speaking up for human rights around the world, regardless of with whom," Trudeau told a news conference at la Francophonie's biennial summit in Armenia.
He said he broached the subject himself during a conversation last spring with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
"We will always endeavour to do it in a constructive way, but we will be ensuring that people know that Canada is unequivocal in standing up for human rights — everywhere, all the time."
The intrigue surrounding Khashoggi's disappearance has only deepened since he was last seen Oct. 2 entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
U.S. media reports say Turkish officials have audio and video recordings that prove Khashoggi was interrogated, tortured and killed by a Saudi security team inside the consulate, where he had gone to obtain official documents before his wedding the next day. A chilling New York Times report says the Saudis brought a bone saw and a doctor of forensic medicine to dismember the body.
"This particular case is of course of concern, and we join with our allies around the world in expressing serious issues with these reports," Trudeau said. "Obviously there is a lot more to uncover on what happened here, so I'm not going to comment too much on this."
The federal Liberal government has good reason to tread softly, given the kingdom's outsized response in August to a tweet from Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland that called for the immediate release of detained activists, including Samar Badawi, a champion of women's rights and the sister of detained blogger Raif Badawi.
Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador in Ottawa, put a freeze on trade, cancelled flights to and from Toronto and pulled its students from Canadian medical schools, prompting withering criticism of the Trudeau government from Opposition MPs and others — including Dennis Horak, Canada's former Saudi ambassador, who this week accused the federal government of overplaying its hand.
But the Khashoggi saga undermines that argument, said Fen Hampson, of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa.
"In some ways, what has happened really has vindicated the actions of our foreign minister, to call them on the carpet for their human rights behaviour," Hampson said. "There's more and more evidence mounting that ... we were prepared to call a spade a spade."
One government source, speaking frankly in exchange for anonymity, said Friday that Trudeau's reticence to speak out on Khashoggi had "zero" to do with any pre-existing sensitivities: "We are still gathering intelligence on this and talking to allies."
Freeland herself has said little on the matter in recent weeks, although she did acknowledge during a Council on Foreign Relations event in New York last month that she had been speaking frequently by phone with Abdel Al-Jubeir, her Saudi counterpart.
Foreign Affairs officials say Freeland met with Al-Jubeir in person that same week on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly, although the pair have not met or spoken since.
There is, of course, another diplomatic wrinkle: the United States, which has long cultivated close relations with Saudi Arabia and currently has a president whose business ties to the region are deep and well known. Donald Trump has also struck a muted tone on the Khashoggi case in recent days.
"We’re looking at it very strongly," he said Thursday in the Oval Office. "What happened is a terrible thing, assuming that happened. I mean, maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised, but somehow I tend to doubt it."
Both countries have a lot to lose financially, as well. Trump often talks about US$110 billion with of arms sales to Saudi Arabia — and while reports describe that dollar figure as more wish list than bottom line, the president is not keen to jeopardize it. In Canada's case, a $15-billion contract to provide Ontario-made light armoured vehicles is very real — as is the Liberal commitment to honouring a deal signed by their Conservative predecessors.
"We respected that contract, but at the same time brought in significantly new and strengthened measures around transparency, around accountability, in ensuring that on a go-forward basis, we are making sure that Canadians' expectations and laws are always being followed," Trudeau said.
Meanwhile, members of Congress are spoiling for a fight, including a powerful bipartisan group of Democratic and Republican senators from the Committee on Foreign Relations, which has formally started a 120-day clock on so-called Magnitsky sanctions against the kingdom.
"With every passing day it's more likely that he's dead; you don't need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out what happened here," Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), a close Trump confidant and one of the letter's signatories, told Fox News.
"If in fact this is true, that he was targeted and killed at the direction of the Saudi government, it will destroy the relationship as we know it."
If the U.S. and Trump go so far as to impose sanctions, Canada — which has its own law named after Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky — may find its hand forced.
"Is Canada going to follow suit? That's really the issue," Hampson said. "If he has been murdered, there's going to be a lot of pressure in (Canada) to enact Magnitsky against the government."