If you've taken I-95 to the Downtown Distributor lately, you may have spotted a digital ad showing President Donald Trump and Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, with the quote, "I SAVED HIS A**." A second ad flashes with the image of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist who was assassinated inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, two years ago, allegedly on bin Salman's orders.
The quote refers to Trump's boast to veteran Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward about shielding the Saudi crown prince from accountability in the murder.
Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi government who had fled the country, was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, to pick up documents he needed in order to marry his fiancée. He wasn't seen alive again. A team of 15 Saudi agents reportedly ambushed Khashoggi almost as soon as he set foot into the consulate building, then suffocated and dismembered him.
The CIA determined that bin Salman had ordered the assassination, although the crown prince has denied involvement in the grisly slaying. Trump gave him a hall pass because of the trade ties between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
"I saved his ass," Trump said of bin Salman during an interview for Woodward's recently published book, Rage. "I was able to get Congress to leave him alone. I was able to get them to stop."
The Freedom Initiative, a Washington, D.C.-based human rights organization, launched the billboard campaign as part of a national effort to draw attention to political prisoners in the Middle East. Bus shelters across Miami feature images of Khashoggi and current and former political prisoners. Some of the ads highlight the stories of Saudi physician Dr. Walid Fitaihi and women's-rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul.
Mohamed Soltan, a U.S. citizen from Egypt and founder of the Freedom Initiative, launched the organization in 2016 to continue the work that secured his release from a Cairo prison. Soltan was imprisoned and tortured for participating in 2013 protests against a military coup in Egypt.
Soltan says he became good friends with Khashoggi when the journalist moved to Virginia.
"He literally was five minutes from my house in the outskirts of D.C.," Soltan says.
Khashoggi had Sunday dinners with Soltan and his family, and the two men spent a great deal of time smoking cigars and talking about oppression in Arab countries and the general state of the world. Khashoggi knew Soltan was involved in advocating for the release of political prisoners in Egypt and encouraged him to expand his work to Saudi Arabia. The new ad campaign, Soltan says, is a way for him to honor Khashoggi and uphold his friend's legacy.
"Knowing that someone who is your friend and mentor got cut up in broad daylight on foreign soil... [I'm] coping with that trauma by appropriating it toward good, productive work," Soltan tells New Times.
Soltan says the Freedom Initiative, in partnership with Amnesty International USA and other human-rights organizations, also raises awareness about the disconnect between Saudi Arabia's human-rights record and the crown prince's public reputation as a reformer and agent of social change.
"The fact of the matter is this is a man who's a gross human-rights violator. A man who chopped up a Washington Post journalist in broad daylight and disappeared the remains of his body. Who continues to hunt down dissidents and human-rights defenders. Women's-rights defenders, thinkers, journalists, and economists are imprisoned for dissenting on the slightest issues or not praising the government enough. He rules in the most authoritarian method possible," Soltan says.
And Trump's refusal to condemn bin Salman for ordering Khashoggi's killing only emboldens the crown prince, Soltan believes.
"The man was able to do all of those things because the president 'saved his ass.' And when you get away with murder once, why does he need to worry? He has the cover of the most powerful man in the world," Soltan says.
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