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Activist Hatice Cengiz remembers Jamal Khashoggi

November 11, 2022

Four years ago, Saudi operatives murdered Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent regime critic. His fiancee, human rights activist Hatice Cengiz, recently gave a lecture in Berlin that was both a speech of mourning and indictment.

Hatice Cengiz looks out in profile against a blurred background
Human rights Hatice Cengiz was engaged to Jamal KhashoggiImage: DW

Hatice Cengiz speaks slowly, pausing repeatedly. As she addresses the audience in the Museum of Communication Berlin, it's clear that every word is a struggle. At some point, a woman in the audience steps forward and offers her a tissue.

Cengiz, a 40-year-old Turkish journalist and Middle East expert, is giving the second-ever Helmut Schmidt Lecture, named for the former German chancellor and hosted by the Helmut Schmidt Foundation. Once a year, the organization invites notable figures to speak on topics that the social democratic politician dealt with extensively during his years as head of government (1974-82). Last year's lecturer was Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader-in-exile of the Belarusian opposition.

Hatice Cengiz speaks into microphones at a podium
Hatice Cengiz gave the 2022 Helmut Schmidt Lecture in BerlinImage: Michael Zapf/Bundeskanzler-Helmut-Schmidt-Stiftung

On Thursday evening in Berlin, Cengiz recalled the fate of her fiance, Jamal Khashoggi — a fate known to everyone in the museum's foyer. Khashoggi was one of Saudi Arabia's most famous journalists and media professionals. After becoming a prominent critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he left the country for Washington, DC.

On October 2, 2018, just a few days before his 60th birthday, Khashoggi went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to pick up some documents for his upcoming marriage to Cengiz. He never left the building. Over the following days, it gradually became clear that Khashoggi had been murdered by Saudi operatives inside the consulate. His body is believed to have been dismembered, and the location of his remains continues to be unknown today.

A woman holds up a poster with Jamal Khashoggi's face on it with the words "Justice for Jamal" printe on it
Khashoggi's murder led to protests in front of Saudi consulates in many citiesImage: imago/IP3press/A. Morissard

In her speech, Cengiz describes the days after his disappearance — waiting desperately, searching and longing. She doesn't mention Saudi Arabia. It's a moving account of her love and loss, the trauma, the mourning, the despair.

"Four years have passed, throughout which I experienced real politics," she says. "I am now personally acquainted with the concepts of the global system, trade-offs behind closed doors, countries' economic interests and the balance of power." Her words ring with astonishment and bitterness.

Seeking justice for murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi

Saudi Arabia: A country to be condemned

It is only after her speech and the subsequent standing ovation, during a conversation with the moderator that Cengiz mentions — almost as an afterthought — Saudi Arabia. She has the right to criticize the country, she explains. A country that kills innocent people must be condemned, she says, adding that a new system of justice is needed.

This is also the subject of questions posed by the audience. How does Cengiz feel about powerful politicians like US President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz paying visits to the crown prince, who is suspected of being involved in Khashoggi's murder? Cengiz acknowledges the concerns of democratic countries around energy supplies given the global situation. But, she adds, she feels sorry for these politicians. It's shameful for them, and they don't deserve respect, she says.

Hatice Cengiz sits with a microphone in her hand as a moderator gestures while speaking to her
After her speech, Cengiz answered questionsImage: Michael Zapf/Bundeskanzler-Helmut-Schmidt-Stiftung

Neither prince nor king

World leaders shouldn't pay their respects to the crown prince, Cengiz argues, adding that in the future, they should neither view him as a king nor receive him as one. She speaks softly but clearly.

Similar concerns and conflicts also play out in the welcome speech for Cengiz, given by Peer Steinbrück, a former German finance minister and the chair of the Helmut Schmidt Foundation's board of trustees. Steinbrück speaks about pragmatic decisions and the balance between interests and values. German democracy's greatest strength is that these topics can be discussed openly and contentiously, he says.

A large rotunda-like hall is filled with seated audience members who watch a speaker on a stage set up between the hall's columns
Hatice Cengiz speaks to a rapt crown in the Museum for Communication BerlinImage: Michael Zapf/Bundeskanzler-Helmut-Schmidt-Stiftung

Cengiz is accompanied by multiple bodyguards. She shares her fears with the evening's moderator — fears she believes she will never be able to shake off. But Cengiz has a mission. During her stay in Germany, she has meetings with top-ranking politicians including current chancellor Olaf Scholz's foreign affairs advisor, Jens Plötner, and Economic Affairs Minister Robert Habeck.

"Dear Jamal," Cengiz says at the end of her speech, addressing her murdered finance, "Your courage and belief in virtuousness introduced you to countless people here today, you will continue to be an inspiration to many people in your own country."

"Rest in peace," she says, bringing her speech to a close — though closure for her seems far away.

This article has been translated from German.

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C