When Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in 2018, it shocked the world. For Hatice Cengiz and Omar Abdulaziz, the murder had very personal implications. Abdulaziz lost a friend and mentor, Cengiz lost the man she was about to marry. They dealt with it in different ways, but one thing is the same for both of them: they would carry on his legacy.
‘He was a very optimistic person, and humble.’ Turkish scientist Hatice Cengiz still misses her fiancé Jamal Khashoggi every day. ‘I mostly miss his voice and his smile. His laughing was very different and unique.’
On 2 October 2018, Turkish scientist Cengiz and her fiancé, exiled Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi went inside to get documents they needed for their planned marriage, while Cengiz waited outside. But Jamal Khashoggi never came out.
Inside the consulate, Khashoggi was brutally murdered by Saudi agents. Although the Saudi authorities claimed Khashoggi was killed in a ‘rogue operation’, much evidence points toward a plot involving Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Later, five people were sentenced to 20 years in jail for the killing. But Bin Salman was never held accountable.
Ever since the murder, Hatice Cengiz has been demanding justice for Jamal Khashoggi. One of the things she has done is file a civil lawsuit in a United States court, pursuing Mohammed bin Salman and others for damages. ‘What happened with Jamal is a really big crime’, she said in an interview. ‘We don’t even know where his body is. No one can understand or accept this. All this is bigger than you and bigger than me and bigger than all of us. We shouldn’t allow these killers to continue what they did.’
For Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz, Khashoggi was a mentor and a father figure. They worked together in opposition to the Saudi dictatorship, and they both had to flee the country: Khashoggi to the US, Abdulaziz to Canada. As recounted in The Dissident, an eye-opening and thriller-like documentary investigating Khashoggi’s murder, one of the things they cooperated on was a social media army called The Bees, who were successful in fighting the Saudi propaganda machine. Disturbingly, those same Saudi propaganda trolls are right now targeting The Dissident, flooding film-rating websites like Rotten Tomatoes with negative reviews. In addition to their cooperation in The Bees, Khashoggi also encouraged Abdulaziz, who has more than half a million Twitter followers, to start his own YouTube show.
When Omar Abdulaziz heard about the murder, at first he broke down. But, as he told The Guardian, he soon found solace in what Khashoggi has achieved in death. ‘The idiots wanted to silence his voice. But they made way for a thousand other voices.’ And as he says in The Dissident: ‘Your voice matters. Your words are important. I learned that from Jamal. He did not have a weapon. He was just using his words. And that shows us how weak they are. So, we have to remind our people about what’s really going on in the country.’
For Hatice Cengiz too, the struggle is not only about Khashoggi. It is also about the human rights defenders still being repressed in Saudi Arabia. Cengiz: ‘Jamal will not come back to us and we will not be able to continue our lives together. But there is some hope for [..] other political prisoners in Saudi Arabia. When we are talking about this issue, we are also talking about them. It is important that international media continue to shed light on those cases.’ Like that of Loujain al Hathloul, a woman’s rights activist who was just released from prison.
In the summer of 2020, Abdulaziz was warned by Canadian authorities that he was a ‘potential target’ of Saudi Arabia. ‘They want to do something, but I don’t know whether it’s assassination, kidnapping, I don’t know’, he said to The Guardian. Despite this, Abdulaziz says he still feels safe in Canada. ‘At the end of the day, I’m fine. I’m OK here in Canada. I hope that they’re not going to do anything stupid.’
Both Omar Abdulaziz and Hatice Cengiz make it clear that Jamal Khashoggi’s murder is all the more reason to keep working for human rights. ‘I have hope’, Cengiz says. ‘If Jamal was still alive, he’d be happy to see what is happening.’
The Dissident is shown at the Movies that Matter Festival 2021. Hatice Cengiz and Omar Abdulaziz will both be guests at the festival.