In the murder case of the government-critical journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi judge has sentenced five individuals to death.
For months, Saudi Arabia had faced scrutiny over the murder until, on Monday, the public prosecutor’s office in Riyadh announced the verdicts. Besides the five individuals sentenced to death, three other defendants were sentenced to a total of 24 years in prison for “concealing the crime.”
However, the trial’s results contradict conclusions conducted by the CIA and other western intelligence agencies that Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) ordered the murder of Khashoggi directly, an allegation that the kingdom has vigorously contested. Nonetheless, the crown prince’s confidante and senior government official Saoud Al Qahtani, a close consultant to MBS along with 16 other Saudis, was sanctioned by the United States last year for his alleged role in the murder.
Khashoggi had been brutally killed by a Riyadh special command at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, when he attempted to obtain documents for his planned wedding. A tweet from the Saudi foreign ministry now said that Khashoggi should “rest in peace.”
“The investigation showed that there were initially no intentions to murder,” said a prosecutor’s spokesman at a press conference. It was only when the head of the “mediation team” in the consulate realized that he could not continue the “negotiations” with Khashoggi in a “safe place” that the murder had taken place. The decision to kill Khashoggi had thus only been made inside the consulate and was not premeditated, according to the ruling.
Aforementioned Saoud Al Qahtani had previously been accused of helping to organize the crime. According to the prosecutor, Saoud Al Qahtani was questioned but was then not charged for lack of evidence of his possible involvement. Mohamed al-Otaibi, Saudi Consul General in Istanbul at the time of the murder, was also not charged. Eyewitnesses would have confirmed that he was free on that day. Moreover, the court fully exonerated al Qahtani.
The lawsuit against a total of eleven Saudi men had been running in Riyadh since January and ended after ten hearings. Khashoggi’s two sons and their lawyers, as well as representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Turkey, attended the hearings. Appeals can be raised against all judgments. The names of the convicted are only made public when the case has been finally heard, and the verdict is final.
The UN special rapporteur on the case, Agnès Callamard, criticized the verdict as a “farce” and compared the saga to the murder of journalist Caruana Galizia in Malta in October 2017. The mere fact that a forensic doctor had been part of the killing team at least 24 hours before the crime suggested premeditation.
Despite total exoneration, the case has cast a shadow onto MBS’ well-crafted attempt to portrait himself as a liberal reformer. Throughout the case, the idea that the killing could have been conducted without his consent or knowledge remained incredulous.
While MBS remains widely popular in Saudi Arabia for implementing far-reaching social – and for the Kingdom progressive – reforms, he has also made life hard for his opponents since his quasi-reign started in 2017. Hundreds of people who threatened his financial or political supremacy have been arrested and brought to justice for national security reasons, including high-ranking women rights activists and international business people.
Furthermore, while MBS has—to no surprise—has not been found guilty of any involvement, the case will likely continue to company him in the foreseeable future. Though, it will not hinder states from conducting business with the Saudis.