Saudi Arabia’s obscure judiciary, led by a prosecutor known above all for his fealty to the country’s powerful crown prince, claims it has sentenced five men to death for the kidnap, torture, murder, and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Three others have been given jail terms totalling 24 years related to the murder of the Washington Post journalist at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
In a rare public statement about the case, a Saudi official said Mr Khashoggi’s killers decided to murder the writer after they had already arrived in Istanbul.
Our investigations show that there was no premeditation to kill at the beginning of the mission,” Shaalan al-Shaalan, a spokesman for the prosecutor, said in a press conference broadcast by Saudi regime mouthpiece al-Arabiya TV.
“The killing was in the spur of the moment, when the head of the negotiating team inspected the premises of the consulate and realised that it was impossible to move the victim to a safe place to resume interrogations, to resume negotiations. The head of the negotiating team and the perpetrators then discussed and agreed to kill the victim inside the consulate.”
Citing Saudi law, none of those convicted have yet been named, even as dissidents accused of national security offences are regularly named and smeared in Saudi media outlets. Under Saudi law, death sentences must be confirmed in appeal and upheld by a high court.
At least 10 officials, including two top ranking officials involved in the killing of the 59-year-old Washington resident, were exonerated.
The public prosecutor’s office said Saud al-Qahtani, a high-profile Saudi royal adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was investigated but released without charges.
The former deputy intelligence chief Ahmed Al-Asiri was also released by the Saudi authorities for “insufficient evidence”.
The killing Mr Khashoggi, a critic of Prince Mohammed, caused a global uproar, though it ultimately failed to prevent western powers from selling Saudi Arabia advanced weapons and surveillance systems. Many of the global corporations that shunned oil-rich Saudi in the wake of the killing already are crawling back to the kingdom, looking for deals.
Saudi Arabia initially claimed it knew nothing about Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance after he entered the consulate building to obtain some paperwork, but eventually admitted under a torrent of leaked surveillance footage and travel documents that a death squad close to the Crown Prince had flown to Istanbul to capture and murder the writer in what it claimed was an unauthorised rogue operation.
To date, there has been no full accounting of the chain of command by which some two dozen trained enforcers, a forensic pathologist and a body double dressed up to resemble Khashoggi, as well as subsequent clean up teams, were dispatched from Riyadh to Istanbul.
Human rights advocates have condemned the trial of Mr Khashoggi’s killers, which only a handful of diplomats sworn to secrecy have witnessed. Nine sessions of the trial were reportedly held. Agnes Callamard, the UN rapporteur investigating the killing, has yet to be be granted permission to visit Saudi Arabia.
In a series of tweets, Ms Callamard condemned the ruling as a “travesty,” noting that at no point did the trial even consider the involvement of the state.
“The execution of Jamal Khashoggi demanded an investigation into the chain of command to identify the masterminds, as well as those who incited, allowed or turned a blind eye to the murder, such as the Crown Prince,” she wrote. “This was not investigated. Bottom line: the hit-men are guilty, sentenced to death. The masterminds not only walk free. They have barely been touched by the investigation and the trial. That is the antithesis of justice. It is a mockery.”