On Monday 23rd December, five men were sentenced to death and another three faced 24 years in prison for their roles in the murder of the dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. However, Saudi Arabia's public prosecutor has exonerated two top figures who were investigated over the killing. Saudi state television reported that Saud al-Qahtani, MBS's aide, had no proven involvement in the killing.
Saudi prosecutors had earlier also said deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri oversaw the Washington Post columnist's killing in the kingdom's Istanbul consulate in October 2018 and that he was advised by the royal court's media czar Saud al-Qahtani. However, Qahtani was investigated but not indicted "due to insufficient evidence" and Assiri was investigated and charged but eventually acquitted on the same grounds.
Al-Qahtani has been sanctioned by the US for his alleged role in the operation.
The court also ruled that the Saudi consul-general in Istanbul at the time, Mohammed al-Otaibi, was not guilty. He was released from prison after the verdicts were announced. The murder of Khashoggi soiled the reputation of the newly appointed crown prince, whom the CIA concluded directly ordered Khashoggi’s assassination, according to a report in the Washington Post.
The Saudi government denies that the prince had knowledge of what it says was a rogue operation. The prince himself told US television in September that he took “full responsibility as a leader in Saudi Arabia”.
After holding nine sessions, the trial concluded that there was no previous intent by those found guilty to murder. All 11 people on trial were found guilty of the killing, which triggered the kingdom’s biggest diplomatic crisis since the 9/11 attacks as world leaders and business executives sought to distance themselves from Riyadh. All 11 defendants may appeal against the verdicts, the deputy public prosecutor, Shalaan bin Rajih Shalaal, said.
No other details were immediately given about the rulings in the highly secretive trial, which began in January. The identities of the men are unknown and UN investigators have been repeatedly barred from hearings, although a handful of diplomats, including from Turkey, as well as members of Khashoggi’s family, were allowed to attend the sessions. The prosecutor said that the Riyadh court hearing the case held a total of nine sessions attended by representatives of the international community as well as Khashoggi's relatives.
"We found that Khashoggi's murder was not premeditated," the statement said.
Prince Mohammed has attempted to portray himself as a liberal reformer of the conservative country.