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'Mockery of justice': Saudi Arabia sentences five to death for Khashoggi murder

Former adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman released alongside ex-deputy intelligence chief Assiri and consul-general Otaibi
Saudi Deputy Public Prosecutor and spokesman Shalaan al-Shalaan delivers a speech in Riyadh (Reuters)

A court in Saudi Arabia sentenced five people to death over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and sent three others to jail, but refused to place blame on the royal family, effectively exonerating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).

Saud al-Qahtani, a former adviser to MBS, who has been widely linked to the murder plot, was released without charge, the prosecutor, Shalaan al-Shalaan, said on Monday.

Ahmed al-Assiri, a former deputy intelligence chief, and Mohammed al-Otaibi, Saudi Arabia's consul-general in Istanbul at the time of the killing, were also released due to a lack of evidence, the prosecutor said.

'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,'

Agnes Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur

The sentences were roundly denounced by rights groups and contradicted the conclusion of the CIA and other western intelligence agencies that MBS directly ordered Khashoggi's assassination.

Khashoggi, a Middle East Eye and Washington Post columnist, was a prominent critic of MBS and the Saudi government.

He was murdered after entering the Saudi consulate in the Turkish city on 2 October 2018 in what a United Nations report called an "extrajudicial killing for which Saudi Arabia is responsible".

The prosecutor did not name the individuals sentenced, but the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions had identified 11 individuals on trial and those facing death sentences. 

They included Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, one of the crown prince's bodyguards, Salah al-Tubaigy, a forensic pathologist, Fahad Shabib al-Balawi, Waleed Abdullah al-Shehri and Turki Muserref al-Shehri.

Agnes Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur, found there was credible evidence warranting further investigation of high-level Saudi officials, including MBS.

"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," Callamard tweeted after the sentences were announced.

"That is the antithesis of Justice. It is a mockery."

United Nations report into Jamal Khashoggi's death: The key points

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  • Khashoggi's killing "constituted an extrajudicial killing for which Saudi Arabia is responsible"
  • The Special Rapporteur found credible evidence warranting further investigation of high-level Saudi officials including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
  • The Special Rapporteur found credible evidence that crime scenes were forensically cleaned
  • Both Saudi and Turkish investigations into death fell short of international standards
  • Pathologist on murder team discussed dismembering body 13 minutes before Khashoggi arrived at consultate
  • Audio recording suggests a struggle involving likely asphyxiation using a bag lasted seven minutes

Saudi authorities have denied that MBS was aware of the plot, or its botched cover-up, and had suggested instead that Assiri and Qahtani were responsible.

Khashoggi was living in self-imposed exile in Turkey when he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on 2 October, 2018, in search of paperwork related to his planned marriage.

The journalist's body has never been found and is thought by Turkish investigators to have been dismembered with a bone saw and then dissolved in acid.

In the deputy public prosecutor's statement, he suggested that, despite the complex nature of the operation and the presence of a forensic pathologist in the hit squad, there was no prior plan to kill the journalist.

Shalaan, who refused to name the five sentenced to death, said they were convicted "for committing and directly participating in the murder of the victim".

Mutreb, who is suspected of being among those sentenced, had accompanied MBS on visits to foreign countries and is part of the Tiger Squad, an elite unit tasked with sensitive operations.

'The sacrificial animal': UN report reveals details of Khashoggi's final moments
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Middle East Eye revealed last year that Assiri and Qahtani were part of the Tiger Squad's command structure. A source with intimate knowledge of the unit told MEE that Mutreb was chosen personally by MBS, "who depends on him and is close to him".

Tubaigy, meanwhile, is heard in audio recordings of the murder planning and executing Khashoggi's assassination and dismemberment.

Callamard, who listened to the recordings from the consulate, which were obtained and leaked piecemeal by Turkish intelligence services, wrote in her report that Tubaigy was a last-minute addition to the team sent to Istanbul, and ill at ease with the plan.

"My direct manager is not aware of what I am doing," Tubaigy said. "There is nobody to protect me."

A month after Khashoggi's murder, the US Treasury sanctioned 17 Saudis implicated in the operation, including Qahtani, Assiri and Otaibi.

“The Saudi officials we are sanctioning were involved in the abhorrent killing of Jamal Khashoggi.  These individuals who targeted and brutally killed a journalist who resided and worked in the United States must face consequences for their actions," the Treasury said at the time.

The verdicts against the eight convicted Saudis can be appealed. Khashoggi's eldest son, Salah Khashoggi, can also offer clemency.

According to a report based on Emirati intelligence, seen by MEE, Saudi Arabia has sought to move beyond the Khashoggi scandal by offering "blood money" to the slain journalist's family in return for them forgoing the right of revenge or "qisas".

Salah Khashoggi recently denied that payments made to the family were an admission of guilt by Saudi rulers. In April, the Washington Post reported the journalist's children were given million-dollar homes and monthly payments of at least $10,000.

Reacting to Monday's news, Salah Khashoggi tweeted "there is neither injustice nor procrastination" with the judgement.

"We affirm our confidence in the Saudi judiciary at all levels," he added.