Once again the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is headline news around the world after a court in Saudi Arabia announced the death sentence for five men and long jail terms for three others, all of whom were found guilty of the grisly killing in Turkey in October last year. According to the Saudi authorities, the team of assassins carried out a “rogue operation”.
So has justice been done in the secretive Kingdom? The answer is no. Justice has not been done nor has it been seen to be done in a trial which has been described by Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur who investigated the murder, as “the antithesis of justice”, as well as “a mockery”.
Khashoggi was a prominent critic of the Saudi government who wrote for the Washington Post. He was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul by a hand-picked hit squad of Saudi agents who had flown into Turkey especially for the murder. According to various government intelligence agencies from east to west, the person who gave the order for the mission to go ahead, and the real power behind the Saudi throne, is Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.
In other words, based on the assessments of governments which are Saudi allies, the man who ordered the barbaric execution has now ordered the execution of the executioners. It would be naïve in the extreme to believe that anything on this scale happens in Saudi Arabia without permission or approval from the 34-year-old Crown Prince who wants to clamp down on any dissent whatsoever within the Kingdom, and that includes the killing of Khashoggi.
The 59-year-old journalist was last seen entering the Saudi Consulate on 2 October 2018; he had an appointment to be given the official papers he needed to marry his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. It was a pre-arranged visit, not spontaneous or a walk-in off the street. Audio recordings of conversations inside the building were revealed by the Turkish intelligence agency, proving that Khashoggi was brutally slain, and his body dismembered.
After weeks of feigned outrage and denial, Saudi Arabia’s deputy public prosecutor Shalaan Al-Shalaan told reporters in November last year that the murder had been ordered by the head of a “negotiations team” sent to Istanbul by the Saudi deputy intelligence chief to return Khashoggi to the Kingdom “by means of persuasion” or, if that failed, “by force”. According to Shalaan, investigators concluded that Khashoggi was forcibly restrained after a struggle and injected with a drug at such a level that it led to an overdose and the journalist’s death. His body was then dismembered and handed over to a local “collaborator” outside the consulate, he added. The remains have yet to be found.
The trial just ended looks to have been window dressing in yet another arrogant move by Bin Salman to weather the ongoing terrible public relations disaster. To Donald Trump’s eternal shame, the US President has taken the side of the killer Crown Prince by refusing to accept or even acknowledge evidence given to him by his own and Turkish intelligence agencies.
The British government and other European states have been equally lacklustre in holding Bin Salman to account, not least because he holds the purse strings to multi-billion dollar arms and oil deals. Some argue that the likes of Trump have enabled the real murderer in what has now become a deadly game of pay for play.
Not surprisingly, journalists were banned from the trial. The names and identities of the accused are not known and, I imagine, once they have been executed the Crown Prince will consider the whole sordid affair to be at an end, as will those who carried out his orders. All we know about the investigation and trial is what we have been told by the Saudi public prosecutor: 31 people were questioned, 21 were arrested and 11 faced the Riyadh Criminal Court where the death penalty was handed down on five of them.
Callamard concluded back in June that Khashoggi’s killing was an “extrajudicial execution”, adding that there was credible evidence that high-level officials, including the Crown Prince, were individually liable and warranted further investigation. Meanwhile human rights groups have added their concerns about the whole judicial process. Amnesty International criticised the trial in a statement released on Monday: “This verdict is a whitewash which brings neither justice nor the truth for Jamal Khashoggi and his loved ones. The trial has been closed to the public and to independent monitors, with no information available.”
Turkey has joined the critics, having played a key role in exposing the full details of the murder through forensic and audio evidence. A statement issued by Hami Aksoy of the Foreign Minister in Ankara said that the decision of the Saudi court was “far from meeting the expectations of both our country and the international community to shed light on the murder with all its dimensions, and deliver justice.”
While those in the hit squad are undoubtedly guilty of the murder, executing them means that the real masterminds get to walk away completely free. Dead men can’t talk, so the executions probably can’t happen quickly enough for people like royal family senior aide Saud Al-Qahtani, who was sacked and investigated over the killing but not charged “due to insufficient evidence”. Another to walk away on the same spurious grounds is former Deputy Intelligence Chief Ahmad Asiri.
Poker faced Shalaan Al-Shalaan told a press conference broadcast by Saudi regime mouthpiece Al-Arabiya TV: “Our investigations show that there was no premeditation to kill at the beginning of the mission. 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 interrogations, to resume negotiations. The head of the negotiating team and the perpetrators then discussed and agreed to kill the victim inside the consulate.”
No premeditated murder? Spur of the moment? Is the man mad or does he think we journalists are simpletons? We are expected to believe that it is perfectly normal for a hit squad of fifteen people, including a forensic pathologist, to fly all the way to Istanbul from Riyadh in private jets, taking with them bone saws, knockout drugs and body bags to a routine meeting at the consulate, and that no premeditated murder took place.
And so the cover-up continues. What could have been an opportunity for an open and transparent trial to show the outside world that Bin Salman is indeed beating the endemic corruption that has plagued the Saudi regime for decades, has now proved to be nothing more than a judicial sham. No doubt billions more will be lavished by Saudi Arabia for the benefit of Western PR firms, influencers and pop stars to try to flush away yet another Saudi mess. They shouldn’t bother; no matter how much they spend, it will be about as effective as pouring Chanel No 5 down a Saudi sewer. The stench of injustice will hang over the Khashoggi murder trial for years to come.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.