If You’re Murdered In This Sydney Hotel Room, There's Not A Lot Police Can Do
I must admit feeling a little nervous approaching the concierge at the stylish Sofitel Sydney Wentworth Hotel in the middle of the city.
“Can I help you sir?” he asked, flashing a professional and warm smile.
“I’d like to visit the Saudi Consulate,” I replied. “And I believe it’s in this hotel?”
“Do you have a Saudi passport?”
The concierge quickly picked up the phone and dialled a number he clearly knew well, and after a brief chat, asked whether I had an appointment.
I did not.
“You’ll need to make an appointment via email,” he told me, adding that the Saudis were “very strict” regarding visitors.
I’m still waiting for a reply to my polite email request for an interview and visit.
In a follow up phone call, I asked exactly where in the hotel the consulate general was located.
"That's information I can't give you," the male voice told me. "Just wait for a reply by email."
But I don’t hold high hopes. The Saudis are a little sensitive at the moment about journalists visiting their consulates.
Two weeks ago, Jamal Khashoggi -- a Saudi journalist and vocal critic of the regime -- walked into the Saudi post in Istanbul, and never emerged. It's suspected he was murdered, and it's being widely reported that the Saudis are preparing to publicly announce he died during an interrogation gone wrong.
But it got me thinking: could the same thing happen here? And, if it did, what power would Australian authorities have to investigate and lay charges?
Not a lot, according to Professor Ben Saul, an expert in international law at the University of Sydney.
"Both consulates and embassies are considered 'inviolable'," he told ten daily.
"The host nation has no right to enter those premises for any reason. The only way around it is if the foreign government gives express consent... but it is at their absolute discretion."
And it's not just the inability of police to enter the building to gather evidence. There's also the issue of diplomatic immunity.
While consular staff are immune from prosecution for all but 'grave crimes', other officials can't be charged with any crime at all.
"For diplomats, it's complete immunity from prosecution, even if they're involved in a murder," said Prof. Saul.
The immunity also applies to officials' family members.
In the Khashoggi case, he said the so-called "flying hit squad" suspected of entering Turkey to carry out the crime might also be able to escape prosecution by invoking "state immunity" if they were acting at the behest of the Saudi regime.
The Lowy Institute's director of research Alex Oliver said the only real action Australia could take in a similar circumstance would be to close down the foreign embassy or consulate.
"If relations get too difficult... and we suspect them of serious crimes, then we could effectively shut down the post by making the entire staff 'persona non grata', and expel them from the country", she said.
"Immunity can always be waived," she added, "but only by the country sending the diplomatic officers."
The bottom line: for one room at the Sofitel Wentworth at least, it appears the cleaners and room service staff have greater access rights than even police.