On September 7, 2020, Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor announced that eight people related to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi had been issued prison sentences between seven and 20 years. The decision is “final,” according to a statement carried by the Saudi state-run news agency. The trial was closed to the public and the media.
The eight defendants, who were not named in the statement released by the Saudi state-run agency, were believed to be members of a 15-man hit squad that killed and dismembered Khashoggi in October 2018. The group reportedly traveled to Turkey from Saudi Arabia in 2018 before committing the murder inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
Khashoggi was killed when he went to the consulate in Istanbul to obtain papers that would allow him to marry his Turkish fiancée. He was a vocal critic of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman as well as a journalist for The Washington Post. Mohammad bin Salman is widely suspected of ordering the killing.
The new decision, delivered after Khashoggi’s sons announced they had forgiven their father’s killers, reverses the previous ruling that sentenced five of the eight defendants to death. The Saudi justice system allows families of victims in some capital cases to grant clemency to convicted killers. Both the December ruling and the latest ruling did not find any senior officials responsible for the murder of Khashoggi.
Two senior Saudi officials — Saud al-Qahtani, a powerful royal media adviser, and Ahmed al-Assiri, a former deputy head of intelligence — were exonerated by the Saudi court late last year, even after Saudi prosecutors said the two men played central roles in the plot that led to Khashoggi’s death.
Notably, the latest ruling does not answer key questions about Khashoggi’s murder, such as who ordered him to be killed and the whereabouts of his remains.
The United Nations
Human rights groups have criticized the court for its lack of transparency. Agnès Callamard, a U.N. human rights expert who conducted an investigation into the killing, wrote on Twitter after the sentences were announced, “These verdicts carry no legal or moral legitimacy. They came at the end of a process which was neither fair, nor just, or transparent.”.
U.N. spokesman Rupert Colville, noting that the United Nations opposes the death penalty, told a Geneva briefing: “This is a case where there has not been proper transparency in the justice process, those responsible should be prosecuted and given sentences commensurate with the crime.” Although the latest decision reverses the death penalty sentences that were delivered for five of the eight defendants, the UN and other human rights groups are still skeptical about how the courts reached their latest conclusion.
In the forty-first session of the Human Rights Council of the United Nations in 2019, the council condemned the killing of Khashoggi as a serious international crime and recommended that the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the Security Council, or the UN Secretary General open an international investigation into Khashoggi’s death. The council also urged Turkey and Saudi Arabia to open an investigation into Khashoggi’s death and cooperate with each other and with the UN to ensure a fair and transparent trial.
On October 8, 2018, one day after the Saudi government confirmed that Khashoggi died inside the consulate, Turkey announced that it would continue its own investigation into his death. The investigation resulted in a trial, in which 20 Saudi citizens are accused of involvement in the murder of Khashoggi. However, none of the accused were in attendance on July 3, 2020 when proceedings commenced, because Saudi Arabia declined to extradite them. The next hearing will be on November 24, 2020.
Human rights organizations praised Turkey’s opening of a trial as a step towards advancing justice in Khashoggi’s death. The trial is also understood to be the result of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s commitment to pursuing those responsible and even implicating the Saudi Crown Prince if necessary.