Saudi court sentences five to death for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder

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Five people have been sentenced to death by a court in Saudi Arabia while three others receive prison sentences for last year’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi, a prominent critic of the Saudi government, was killed inside Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey by a team of Saudi agents.

Saudi authorities placed 11 unnamed individuals on trial after conducting what it called a “rogue operation”.

A report released by UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard concluded in June that Khashoggi’s death was an “extrajudicial execution” for which the Saudi state was responsible, and that there was credible evidence warranting further investigation that high-level officials, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, were individually liable.

Callamard, who investigated the murder, has been rather more explicit. The trial, she said, was “the antithesis of justice”, and “a mockery”.

“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,” the special rapporteur wrote on Twitter.

The prince denied any involvement, but in October he said he took “full responsibility as a leader in Saudi Arabia, especially since it was committed by individuals working for the Saudi government”.

A senior aide, Saud al-Qahtani, was sacked and investigated over the killing but not charged “due to insufficient evidence”, the public prosecution said. Former Deputy Intelligence Chief Ahmad Asiri was put on trial but was acquitted on the same grounds.

The Turkish foreign ministry said the decision of the Saudi court was “far from meeting the expectations of both our countries and the international community to shed light on the murder with all its dimensions and deliver justice”.

The shadow cast by the grisly murder of Jamal Khashoggi has hung over Saudi Arabia’s international reputation for more than a year now. The ruling princes, especially the all-powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, will be hoping Monday’s verdicts draw a line under the whole affair. That may be wishful thinking.

The two most senior suspects – dubbed “the masterminds” – have walked free after a trial shrouded in secrecy. The reaction from the UK’s foreign secretary has been a carefully-worded call for everyone to be held to account.

Saudi Arabia’s deputy public prosecutor Shalaan Shalaan told reporters in November 2018 that the murder was ordered by the head of a “negotiations team” sent to Istanbul by the Saudi deputy intelligence chief to bring Khashoggi back to the kingdom “by means of persuasion” or, if that failed, “by force”.

Investigators concluded that Khashoggi was forcibly restrained after a struggle and injected with a large amount of a drug, resulting in an overdose that led to his death, Mr Shalaan said. His body was then dismembered and handed over to a local “collaborator” outside the consulate, he added.

The journalist’s remains were never found.

At a news conference in Riyadh on Monday, Mr Shaalan said the public prosecution’s investigations had shown that “there was no premeditation to kill at the beginning of the mission”.

“The investigation showed that the killing was not premeditated… The killing was in the spur of the moment, when the head of the negotiating team inspected the premises of the consulate and realised that it was impossible to move the victim to a safe place to resume negotiations.

“The head of the negotiating team and the perpetrators then discussed and agreed to kill the victim inside the consulate,” he added.

Ms Callamard dismissed as “utterly ridiculous” the assertion that the killing was not premeditated, noting that in one of the purported audio recordings from the consulate two Saudi officials were heard discussing how to cut up and transport Khashoggi’s body just minutes before he entered the consulate.

A statement by the Saudi public prosecution said a total of 31 individuals were investigated over the killing and that 21 of them were arrested. Eleven were eventually referred to trial at the Riyadh Criminal Court and the public prosecutor sought the death penalty for five of them.

Human Rights Watch said the trial, which took place behind closed doors, did not meet international standards and that the Saudi authorities had “obstructed meaningful accountability”.

On Monday, the Riyadh Criminal Court sentenced five individuals to death for “committing and directly participating in the murder of the victim”, according to the public prosecution’s statement.

Three others were handed prison sentences totalling 24 years for “covering up this crime and violating the law”, while the remaining three were found not guilty.

The public prosecution said it would decide whether to review the court’s rulings and decide whether to appeal. The death sentences must be upheld by the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.

According to interviews conducted by Ms Callamard, the defendants’ lawyers argued in court that they were state employees and could not object to the orders of their superiors, and that Mr Asiri insisted that he never authorised the use of force to bring Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia. (Source: BBC)

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