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Saudi Court Sentences Five to Death in Khashoggi Killing
The Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul is shown on December 23, a short time after a Saudi court handed down sentencing in the October 2, 2018, slaying of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (Courtesy)

Saudi Court Sentences Five to Death in Khashoggi Killing

Three receive jail terms, three others acquitted in verdict leading to international outrage

A Saudi Arabian court sentenced five people to death, and three more to jail terms, on Monday for the October 2, 2018, killing of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

State media carried a press conference by Deputy Public Prosecutor Shalaan al-Shalaan, who said the court had dismissed charges against the remaining three defendants.

“The public prosecution’s investigation showed that the killing was not premeditated at the start of this mission” but had occurred in the heat of the moment, Shalaan told media representatives.

During the investigation, 21 people were arrested and 10 others were called in for questioning without arrest, Shalaan said.

Two close aides to the kingdom’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, had been implicated in the slaying. One, Saud al-Qahtani, a royal adviser, was not charged. The other, Ahmed al-Asiri, deputy chief of intelligence, was tried but acquitted due to what Shalaan called a lack of evidence.

Yusuf Erim, chief political and Middle East analyst for TRT, the Turkish public broadcaster, told The Media Line that the court proceedings were shrouded in mystery.

“Due to the opaqueness of the Saudi judicial system, we don’t know exactly who the five people sentenced to death are, at least as of now. We do know who hasn’t been sentenced and who’s been released – and actually, they’re the key figures in this investigation.”

Erim says the crown prince is desperate to close this chapter and move on.

“Obviously it’s in [his] best interest to close this as quickly as possible and shift the blame onto lower-level people who are far-removed from the state,” he said.

“When we look at the evidence… it’s very easy to see that an operation of this magnitude cannot be carried out without the state knowing about it. And in Saudi Arabia, who is the state? Mohammed bin Salman is the state.”

Erim also cast doubt on the fairness of the judicial system in the kingdom.

“We know that the Saudi courts have strong ties to the Saudi royal family, so this also creates a huge conflict of interest in any type of investigation they’re leading.”

Simon Henderson, Baker Fellow at The Washington Institute and director of the Institute’s Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy, told The Media Line that judging the fairness of the decision depends on whom you ask.

“In Saudi terms, yes. For anyone else, probably not,” he said.

Khashoggi was a Saudi national, a US resident and a contributor to The Washington Post. He was also a harsh critic of the crown prince, the kingdom’s de facto ruler.

He entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to obtain official documents ahead of his wedding. His body was dismembered by a 15-man Saudi hit squad, according to Turkish officials. His remains have not been found.

The kingdom came under a tremendous amount of international pressure as a result, with many Western governments suspending arms sales to Riyadh. The killing also brought a great deal of scrutiny to its human rights practices.

The Saudis are looking to rehabilitate their tarnished image ahead of next year’s G20 summit in Riyadh, although Henderson says its “too early” to tell if the verdict will be sufficient

At the time of the slaying, Riyadh called it a “rogue” operation. Yet the CIA and the intelligence apparatuses of other Western governments believe the crown prince gave a direct order to kill Khashoggi, an accusation vehemently denied by Saudi officials.

“There is tremendous pressure from US lawmakers on US intelligence services to name the mastermind behind this assassination,” Erim added, “so I’m seeing this court decision as very timely and Saudi Arabia trying to get ahead of the narrative.”

Both Qahtani and Asiri have been dismissed from Mohammed’s inner circle. According to Shalaan, Mohammed al-Otaibi, the Saudi consul in Istanbul at the time of the killing, was not in the room where Khashoggi was killed and was released after questioning.

Henderson says it is unlikely that the verdict will end the criticism.

“The repair has started, but it is debatable how much press it has made,” he said.

Saudi media outlets such as the English-language Daily Arab News and the Al Arabiya channel reported the news without editorializing, but elsewhere in the Middle East and among rights groups, the verdict played to mixed feelings.

Turkish media went on the offensive immediately. The pro-government, English-language Daily Sabah ran this headline: “Saudi Arabia fails to provide justice for Khashoggi murder.”

The Al Jazeera Arabic news channel, based in Doha, Qatar, quoted Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, as calling the verdict “ridiculous.” It headlined its report: “UN rejects Saudi rulings over Khashoggi; Turkey, Britain call for justice.”

Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on summary executions who has directly linked Mohammed to the killing, wrote on Twitter: “And the travesty of investigation, prosecution and justice continues.”

The Paris-based media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders said justice had been “trampled on” in a trial that disrespected international standards of justice.

Amnesty International criticized the verdict as a “whitewash,” saying it “brings neither justice nor the truth for Jamal Khashoggi and his loved ones.”

Yet Khashoggi’s son, who remains in Saudi Arabia, wrote on Twitter: “The Saudi judiciary was fair, and we have full confidence in it.”

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