Saudi Arabia is seeking the death penalty for five of the 11 people charged with ordering and carrying out the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Speaking at a news conference in Riyadh the country’s most senior public prosecutor, Saud Al-Mojeb, indicted the main suspects but insisted that the Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman, also known as MBS, was not implicated in the gruesome murder of the Washington Post journalist.
Disclosing details of his investigation into Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Al-Mojeb said that the former deputy head of intelligence, Ahmed Al-Asiri, had dispatched a Saudi team to Turkey to negotiate Khashoggi’s return to Saudi Arabia. The order to kill the journalist came from the head of the Saudi team in Istanbul, the prosecutor added.
A spokesman for Al-Mojeb told journalists during the press conference in Riyadh today that the plan to kill Khashoggi was set in motion on 29 September, three days before he was killed inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.
Khashoggi was killed on 2 October after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Friday 28 September to obtain a document certifying his divorce. He was instructed to return the following week. During that period he had travelled to the UK to take part in a conference organised by MEMO. He returned to the embassy two days after arriving in Istanbul from the UK after which he was reported missing by his fiancée Hatice Cengiz.
Al-Mojeb said Khashoggi died from a lethal injection and his body was dismembered and taken out of the building. Riyadh’s top prosecutor added that 21 people were in custody, with 11 indicted and referred to trial. He also revealed that Saud Al-Qahtani– who is thought to be the closest person to the crown prince along with Turki Al-Sheikh – had been banned from travelling and remained under investigation.
A profile of Al-Qahtani and Al-Sheikh in the New York Times described their pivotal role in the brazen power play that has marked MBS’ dominance of the kingdom. “They are the closest people to the crown prince,” said Kristin Smith Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “They are his political enforcers and the face of the brash new ‘Saudi first’ posture at home and abroad.”
Experts cited in the Times profile of the two men consider Al-Qahtani and Al-Sheikh’s fate as a bellwether of the royal court’s direction as it grapples with the international outrage over the killing of Khashoggi.
Al-Mojeb’s persistence in shielding MBS so early into the investigation, while indicting senior Saudi officials, including members of the crown prince’s closest confidante, is unlikely to satisfy critics. Officials in several countries have said it is unlikely Khashoggi could have been killed without the knowledge of the crown prince, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader.
While no definitive evidence has emerged to show that MBS had ordered the operation, the message “tell your boss” sent from the Saudi consulate by the agents charged with the operation to kill Khashoggi is believed to be an instruction to notify the crown prince that the mission had been successful.
Turkey, which has been leaking details of the killing in what seems to be an attempt to keep Riyadh on the back foot, has consistently maintained that the order to kill Khashoggi had come from the top; a line that suggests that the Turks are certain that MBS is behind the killing. Riyadh’s failure to come clean from the outset has made their job of convincing the rest of the world of their version of the incident almost an impossible task.
In their shifting account, Riyadh went from first saying that Khashoggi had left the embassy alive – a position they insisted on for weeks – then admitting that he had been killed in a fist fight and then finally confessing that there was indeed an operation to silence the Saudi critic by killing him.
While Riyadh will be hoping that seeking the death penalty may diffuse the global outrage, Turkey has continued to add pressure on MBS. It’s possible that they still have information that may prove to be fatally damaging for the crown prince; their strategy to drip feed details of the killing has caught Riyadh off guard and irreparably discredited its narrative.
Ankara’s latest move is to call for an international investigation into the murder of veteran journalist. “At the current stage we believe an international investigation is a must,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said yesterday according to the state-run Anadolu Agency.