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'More like a cover-up': Critics of Saudi Arabia decry 'sham' Khashoggi trials

US legislators denounce Saudi verdicts in Khashoggi case, vowing to push for real accountability
'After a sham trail, the masterminds behind Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder walk away scot-free,' US senator says (AFP/File photo)

If the aim of sentencing five people to death over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi was to quell the outrage over the killing, the announcement by the Saudi public prosecutor on Monday had the opposite effect.

A "sham trial", a "show", a "travesty", the "antithesis of justice". That's how some observers and US legislators described the Saudi verdicts, which also cleared top officials in the kingdom of responsibility for killing and dismembering the Washington Post journalist.

Critics were particularly incensed that the verdicts cleared Saud al-Qahtani, former top aide of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Ahmed al-Assiri, former deputy intelligence chief - who are believed to have played a major role in the killing.

Moreover, the Saudi judicial system never looked into the involvement of royal family members in the murder. Last year, the CIA concluded that bin Salman ordered the assassination.

The Washington Post editorial board was quick to call Monday's sentences a "travesty of justice".

'This sham trial, carried out by a despotic and lawless regime, looks more like a cover-up'

- Bernie Sanders, US senator

"The result is an insult to Khashoggi’s family and to all those, including a bipartisan congressional majority, who have demanded genuine accountability in the case," the board wrote in an op-ed.

It also warned world governments against welcoming the results of the Saudi trials.

"International acceptance of the result would not only be morally wrong but dangerous, too: It would send the reckless Saudi ruler the message that his murderous adventurism will be tolerated," the article reads.

Several Democratic members of Congress also voiced strong opposition to the verdicts.

"The CIA concluded that the Saudi crown prince ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. This sham trial, carried out by a despotic and lawless regime, looks more like a cover-up," Senator Bernie Sanders, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, wrote on Twitter.

"Maybe Donald Trump might want to stop proclaiming his love and affection for the Saudi dictatorship."

'Trump is also culpable'

Trump has emerged as a fierce defender of Saudi Arabia over the past three years. After the murder of Khashoggi, he shielded bin Salman from the blame, repeatedly emphasising Riyadh's arms deals with Washington. 

Khashoggi, who also wrote for Middle East Eye, was killed by Saudi government agents at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018. He was a frequent critic of bin Salman's policy. 

'Trump is also culpable - having done next to nothing to hold the Crown Prince accountable for murdering a brave, truth-seeking journalist'

- Richard Blumenthal, US senator

Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat who represents Virginia where Khashoggi lived, also cited the CIA's assessment that bin Salman was behind the murder, urging the Trump administration to seek justice for the slain US resident.

"Senior Saudi officials continue to escape accountability for the state-sponsored murder of Jamal Khashoggi," Kaine said

"The Trump Administration should be demanding justice for the brutal killing of a journalist and VA resident instead of ignoring the CIA’s assessment of who killed him."

For his part, Senator Richard Blumenthal directly blamed Trump.

"After a sham trail, the masterminds behind Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder walk away scot-free," Blumenthal said

"Trump is also culpable - having done next to nothing to hold the Crown Prince accountable for murdering a brave, truth-seeking journalist."

'Premeditated murder'

Congressman Adam Schiff, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, rejected the Saudi prosecutor's assertion that the killing of Khashoggi was not planned.

"This sentence is a continuation of the Kingdom’s effort to distance Saudi leadership, including the Crown Prince, from the brutal assassination of a journalist and US resident, Jamal Khashoggi," Schiff wrote on Twitter.

"This was a premeditated murder, not a 'snap decision' or rogue operation."

It took Saudi Arabia 17 days to admit that Khashoggi was killed. Initially, top Saudi officials kept insisting that the journalist had left the building alive. After eventually coming around to acknowledging the murder, the kingdom said it was an unauthorised operation that the crown prince and other top officials took no part in. 

'The result is an insult to Khashoggi’s family and to all those, including a bipartisan congressional majority, who have demanded genuine accountability in the case'

- Washington Post Editorial Board

"I don't think that the international community is going to forget this. I think that the Khashoggi affair will continue to be a problem for Saudi Arabia in conducting its foreign policy," said Imad Harb, director of research and analysis at the Arab Center Washington DC.

He added that the trials allowed the powerful officials who orchestrated and ordered the killing to get away with murder while punishing "small operatives" for the crime. 

Even those sentenced to death, Harb predicted, may eventually be pardoned after some form of state-brokered reconciliation is reached with Khashoggi's family.

As for the US role, Harb said the Trump administration will likely be satisfied with the verdict, but Congress, including some members of the president's own Republican party will continue to push against the kingdom.

"Maybe Congress will do some things to try to punish [Saudi Arabia]," Harb told MEE. "But at the same time when it comes to the president's desk, it's going to be vetoed whatever decision Congress will arrive at."

Trump has used his presidential veto powers twice this year to protect the kingdom from congressional efforts to end US involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen and withhold weapon sales to Riyadh.

A senior State Department official welcomed the Saudi verdicts on Monday.

US report on Khashoggi murder must reveal individuals involved: UN's Callamard
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"Today's verdicts were an important step in holding those responsible for the terrible crime accountable," the official said. 

"We've encouraged Saudi Arabia to undertake a fair and transparent judicial process, and we will continue to do so. We've urged for the full accountability for Khashoggi’s murder since day one."

But UN expert Agnes Callamard, who has investigated the killing, said the sentences represent the opposite of accountability. 

"Bottom line: the hit-men are guilty, sentenced to death," Callamard wrote in a Twitter thread detailing the flaws of the verdicts.

"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."