A Saudi court verdict that exonerated the crown prince’s top aides over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has been globally condemned as a travesty of justice, but won the backing of ally Washington.
Five unnamed people were sentenced to death on Monday while three others were handed jail terms totalling 24 years over the Washington Post columnist’s killing last year in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate.
The verdict underscores Saudi efforts to turn the page on one of its worst diplomatic crises that tarnished Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s global reputation and sparked intense scrutiny of the kingdom’s human rights record.
However, the case is still likely to remain a headache for Saudi Arabia even as it seeks to reboot its international image ahead of next year’s G20 summit in Riyadh.
A US State Department official hailed the verdict as “an important step” in holding the perpetrators accountable.
“We’re pressing them for more transparency and for holding everybody accountable,” the official added.
But it was lambasted by Turkey, which called it a “scandalous” outcome that had granted “impunity” to those who had dispatched the killers, in an apparently veiled reference to Prince Mohammed.
Riyadh has described the murder as a “rogue” operation that did not involve the crown prince.
But both the CIA and UN special envoy Agnes Callamard have directly linked Prince Mohammed to the killing, a charge the kingdom vehemently denies.
“Bottom line: the hit-men are guilty, sentenced to death,” Callamard said on Twitter, calling the verdict a “mockery”.
“The masterminds not only walk free. They have barely been touched by the investigation and the trial.”
– ‘Secret trial ‘ –
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, the public prosecutor’s office said.
Both aides were part of 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.
“A secret trial in an absolute monarchy with no due process is neither fair nor transparent,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“True accountability requires the kingdom’s (government) take responsibility for this official act.”
Even in the United States, the verdict was met with criticism from some lawmakers.
“Any serious improvement in our bilateral relationship requires justice and accountability,” Senator Angus King said in a statement.
“Between the secrecy surrounding the proceedings (including refusing to name those found guilty) and apparently not accounting for the role the crown prince’s top aide Saud al-Qahtani played in the murder… the announcement does not seem to meet those criteria.”
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 Fahad 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 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, official said.
The verdict can be appealed.