RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Saudi Arabia sentenced five people to death on Monday for the killing of Washington Post columnist and royal family critic Jamal Khashoggi, whose murder in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul drew sharp international criticism and marred the crown prince’s relationship with members of Congress in Washington.
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 the verdicts are preliminary and can be appealed.
A handful of diplomats, including from Turkey, as well as members of Khashoggi’s family were allowed to attend the nine court sessions, though independent media were barred.
While the case in Saudi Arabia has largely concluded, questions linger in the international court of public opinion about Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s culpability in the slaying.
Khashoggi, who was a resident of the U.S., had walked into his country’s consulate on Oct. 2, 2018 for a scheduled appointment to pick up documents that would allow him to marry his Turkish fiancee. He never walked out and his body has not been found.
A team of 15 Saudi agents were flown specifically to Turkey to meet Khashoggi that day inside the consulate. They included a forensic doctor, intelligence and security officers and individuals who worked for the crown prince’s office, according to an independent U.N. 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 — even as 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.
The prince’s father, King Salman, ordered a shake-up of top security posts after the killing.
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 C.I.A., among a handful of others.
Saudi Arabia initially offered multiple shifting accounts about 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 U.N. 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 Khashoggi to arrive and one of them asking how they would carry out the body.
Not to worry, the doctor said: “Joints will be separated. It is not a problem,” he 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 gruesome slaying brought into sharp focus the exact concerns over human rights that Khashoggi had spent the last year of his life in exile in the U.S. writing about in columns for The Washington Post — and possibly why he was targeted.
At a time when Prince Mohammed’s social reforms were being widely hailed in the West, Khashoggi’s columns criticized the parallel crackdown on dissent the prince was overseeing. Numerous critics of the Saudi crown prince remain imprisoned and face trial on national security charges.
In Washington, Congress has said it believes Prince Mohammed is “responsible for the murder.” President Donald Trump has condemned the killing, but he’s stood by the 34-year-old crown prince and defended U.S.-Saudi ties. Washington has sanctioned 17 Saudis suspected of being involved.
Among those sanctioned are Saud al-Qahtani, a hawkish 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 Monday al-Qahtani was investigated and had no proven involvement in the killing. Al-Asiri was tried and released due to insufficient evidence.
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 U.S. due to his “involvement in gross violations of human rights.” The U.S. Department of State has also issued travel bans against his immediate family.
Callamard, the U.N. special rapporteur, reacted to the verdicts by tweeting that “the travesty of investigation, prosecution and justice continues” in Saudi Arabia. She’d previously warned that the case was vulnerable to political interference.
Rights organization 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 Khashoggi, criticized the verdict, saying the Saudi court had failed to bring the real perpetrators to justice.
“The prosecutor sentenced five hit men to death but did not touch those who were behind the five,” Aktay told The Associated Press.
“The verdict neither meets the expectations of the public conscience nor the feeling of justice,” he said.
Although Khashoggi’s killing tarnished Prince Mohammed’s reputation in the West, he is hugely popular at home, especially among young Saudis happy with the social changes he’s ushered in.
As time passes, damage to the crown prince’s reputation has started to fade and some companies that had stayed away due to public backlash have resumed doing business with the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia has over the past months opened the notoriously closed-off country to tourists and travelers from around the world as part of a push to boost the economy and change perceptions of the kingdom.