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RIYADH: Five people were sentenced to death yesterday over Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, but two top officials were exonerated as authorities said the killing was not premeditated. Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor, was murdered in October last year in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate in what Riyadh called a “rogue” operation, tipping it into one of its worst diplomatic crises.
Out of individuals indicted in the case – most of whom remain unnamed – five were sentenced to death, three face jail terms totaling 24 years, and the others were acquitted, the public prosecutor said. The verdict – lambasted by Turkey and rights groups as a travesty of justice – underscores Saudi efforts to draw a line under the crisis as it seeks to reboot its international image ahead of next year’s G20 summit in Riyadh.
“The public prosecution’s investigation showed that the killing was not premeditated at the start of this mission” but rather that it occurred in the heat of the moment, Saudi deputy prosecutor Shalaan Al-Shalaan told a press conference. The verdict can be appealed. Khashoggi, a 59-year-old Saudi insider-turned-critic, was strangled and his body cut into pieces by a 15-man Saudi squad inside the consulate, according to Turkish officials. His remains have not been found.
Saudi prosecutors had said deputy intelligence chief Ahmed Al-Assiri oversaw Khashoggi’s killing and the US Treasury had claimed the royal court’s media czar Saud Al-Qahtani was “part of the planning and execution” of the operation that led to the murder. Qahtani was investigated but not indicted “due to insufficient evidence” and Assiri was charged but eventually acquitted on the same grounds, Shalaan added. Both aides were part of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed’s tight-knit inner circle and were formally sacked over the killing, but only Assiri appeared in the court hearings, according to Western sources.
Turkey’s foreign ministry said the judgement was “far from meeting… expectations” on delivering justice. “The fact that important issues like the location of the late Khashoggi’s body, the identification of the instigators and, if there are any, the local co-operators, are still in the dark is a fundamental shortcoming to justice being served and accountability,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said.
Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said “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,” she added on Twitter. “That is the antithesis of justice. It is a mockery.” Amnesty International condemned it as a “whitewash which brings neither justice nor the truth”. “If the court ruling is meant to put the Khashoggi affair to rest, it is unlikely to succeed,” H A Hellyer, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told AFP.
In a statement on a Washington Post Twitter account, the paper’s publisher Fred Ryan said a “complete lack of transparency and the Saudi government’s refusal to cooperate with independent investigators” pointed to a “sham trial”. “Those ultimately responsible, at the highest level of the Saudi government, continue to escape responsibility” for the murder, he added.
Qahtani, who led fiery social media campaigns against critics of the kingdom, has not appeared publicly since the murder and his whereabouts are a subject of fevered speculation. Maher Mutreb, an intelligence operative who frequently travelled with the crown prince on foreign tours, forensic expert Salah Al-Tubaigy and Fahd Al-Balawi, a member of the Saudi royal guard, were among the 11 on trial, sources have told AFP. It was unclear if they were among those sentenced to death.
The sources said that many of those accused defended themselves in court by saying they were carrying out Assiri’s orders, describing him as the “ringleader” of the operation. The Riyadh court hearing the case held a total of nine sessions attended by representatives of the international community as well as Khashoggi’s family, Shalaan added.
One of Khashoggi’s sons – who weeks after the murder appealed publicly for the return of his father’s body – said the verdicts had been fair to his children. “We affirm our confidence in the Saudi judiciary at all levels, that it has been fair to us and that justice has been achieved,” Salah Khashoggi said on Twitter.
Shalaan also said the Saudi consul-general to Turkey at the time, Mohammed Al-Otaibi, had been freed after Turkish witnesses said Otaibi had been with them on the day of the crime. Two weeks ago, the United States barred Otaibi from entering the country. Shalaan said that when the Saudi team that entered the consulate saw that it would not be possible to transfer Khashoggi to a safe place to continue negotiating, they decided to kill him.
“It was agreed, in consultation between the head of the negotiating team and the culprits, to kill Jamal Khashoggi inside the consulate,” Shalaan said in response to questions from journalists. He added the investigations proved there was no “prior enmity” between those convicted and Khashoggi. – Agencies
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