Saudi Arabia sentences five to death over journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing

By Abdullah Al-Shihri and Aya Batrawy, Associated Press

Saudi Arabia has sentenced five people to death for the killing of Washington Post columnist and Saudi royal family critic Jamal Khashoggi.

The writer was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year.

The Riyadh criminal court found another three people guilty of covering up the crime.

They were sentenced for a combined 24 years in prison, according to a statement read by the Saudi attorney general’s office on state TV.

In total, 11 people had been on trial in Saudi Arabia for the killing, but the government has not made their names public.

All can appeal against the preliminary verdicts.

Hatice Cengiz, fiancee of late journalist Jamal Khashoggi (Domenico Stinellis/AP)

A handful of diplomats, including from Turkey, as well as members of Mr Khashoggi’s family were allowed to attend the nine court sessions, although independent media were barred.

Mr Khashoggi, who was a resident of the US, had walked into his country’s consulate on October 2 2018 for a scheduled appointment to pick up documents that would allow him to marry his Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz.

He never walked out and his body has not been found.

A team of 15 Saudi agents were flown specifically to Turkey to meet Mr Khashoggi that day inside the consulate.

They included a forensic doctor, intelligence and security officers and individuals who worked for the office of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, according to an independent UN probe.

His death stunned Saudi Arabia’s Western allies and immediately raised questions about how the high-level operation could have been carried out without the knowledge of Prince Mohammed.

The kingdom insists the crown prince had nothing to do with the killing.

In an interview in September with CBS’ 60 Minutes, Prince Mohammed said: “I take full responsibility as a leader in Saudi Arabia.”

But he reiterated that he had no knowledge of the operation because he could not keep such close track of the country’s millions of employees.

A video image of Hatice Cengiz, fiancee of Jamal Khashoggi, is played during an event to remember the journalist (J Scott Applewhite/AP)

Meanwhile, Turkey, a rival of Saudi Arabia, has used the killing on its soil to pressure the kingdom.

Turkey, which had demanded the suspects be tried there, apparently had the Saudi Consulate bugged and has shared audio of the killing with the CIA, among a handful of others.

Saudi Arabia initially offered multiple shifting accounts about Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance.

As international pressure mounted due to Turkish leaks, the kingdom eventually settled on the explanation that he was killed by rogue officials in a brawl.

The trial concluded the killing was not premeditated, according to Shaalan al-Shaalan, a spokesperson from the Saudi attorney general’s office.

A 101-page report released this year by Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, included details from the audio Turkish authorities shared with her.

She reported hearing Saudi agents waiting for Mr Khashoggi to arrive and one of them asking how they would carry out the body.

“Joints will be separated. It is not a problem,” the doctor says in the audio. “If we take plastic bags and cut it into pieces, it will be finished. We will wrap each of them.”

The killing brought into sharp focus the exact concerns over human rights that Mr Khashoggi had spent the last year of his life in exile in the US writing about in columns for The Washington Post.

US president Donald Trump has condemned the killing, but he has stood by the 34-year-old crown prince and defended US-Saudi ties.

Washington has sanctioned 17 Saudis suspected of being involved.

Among those sanctioned are Saud al-Qahtani, a former adviser to the crown prince, and Ahmed al-Asiri, also a former adviser who was deputy head of intelligence.

The Saudi attorney general’s office said on Monday Mr al-Qahtani was investigated and had no proven involvement in the killing.

Mr Al-Asiri was tried and released due to insufficient evidence.

Five people have been senenced to death for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

Riyadh’s criminal court also ordered the release of Saudi Arabia’s consul-general in Istanbul at the time, Mohammed al-Otaibi.

He is among those sanctioned by the US due to his “involvement in gross violations of human rights”.

Ms Callamard, the UN special rapporteur, reacted to the verdicts by tweeting that “the travesty of investigation, prosecution and justice continues” in Saudi Arabia.

Rights organisation Amnesty International said the verdict is “a whitewash which brings neither justice nor truth” and comes as courts in Saudi Arabia routinely hold “grossly unfair trials”.

In Turkey, Yasin Aktay, a member of Turkey’s ruling party and a friend of Mr Khashoggi, criticised the verdict, saying the Saudi court had failed to bring the real perpetrators to justice.

“The prosecutor sentenced five hitmen to death but did not touch those who were behind the five,” Mr Aktay told The Associated Press.

“The verdict neither meets the expectations of the public conscience nor the feeling of justice,” he said.

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