RIYADH – A Saudi court verdict exonerating the crown prince’s top aides over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has been condemned globally as a travesty of justice — but also won the backing of key ally Washington.
Five unnamed people were sentenced to death Monday and three others were handed prison terms totaling 24 years over the killing of the Washington Post columnist last year at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul.
The verdict underscores Saudi efforts to turn the page on one of its worst-ever diplomatic crises, which tarnished powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s global reputation and sparked intense scrutiny of the kingdom’s human rights record.
However, the case is likely to remain a headache for Saudi Arabia as it gears up for next year’s Group of 20 summit in Riyadh.
A U.S. 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 — apparently a veiled reference to the crown prince.
The European Union also reiterated the need to ensure “accountability and prosecution of all those responsible.”
Riyadh has described the murder as a “rogue” operation that did not involve the crown prince.
But both the CIA and United Nations special envoy Agnes Callamard have directly linked Mohammed to the killing, a charge the kingdom vehemently denies.
Callamard called the verdict a “mockery,” writing on Twitter: “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.”
Khashoggi, a 59-year-old Saudi establishment insider-turned-critic, was strangled and dismembered by a 15-man Saudi squad inside the consulate, according to Turkish officials. His remains have not been found.
Saudi prosecutors said deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri oversaw Khashoggi’s killing. The U.S. Treasury 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.
Al-Qahtani was investigated but not indicted due to “insufficient evidence,” and al-Assiri was charged but eventually acquitted on the same grounds, the public prosecutor’s office said.
Both aides were part of Mohammed’s tight-knit inner circle and were formally sacked over the killing, but only al-Assiri appeared at the court hearings, according to Western officials.
The acquittal of al-Qahtani, who has not appeared publicly since the murder but is rumored to still wield power behind the scenes, was welcomed on social media by multiple Saudi public figures, including prominent journalist Salman Aldosary.
But it was criticized globally, including by some U.S. lawmakers.
“Any serious improvement in (the U.S.-Saudi) bilateral relationship requires justice and accountability,” Sen. 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.”
Among the 11 on trial were Maher Mutreb, an intelligence operative who frequently traveled with the crown prince on foreign tours, forensic expert Salah al-Tubaigy and Fahad al-Balawi, a member of the Saudi royal guard, said Western officials.
It was unclear who was sentenced to death.
The sources said many of those accused defended themselves in court by saying they were carrying out al-Assiri’s orders, describing him as the “ringleader” of the operation.
The Riyadh court that heard the case held a total of nine sessions attended by diplomats as well as Khashoggi’s family, an official said.
The verdict can be appealed.