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December 24, 2019

Saudi court sentences five to death over Khashoggi murder

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December 24, 2019

RIYADH/ DUBAI: Five people were sentenced to death on Monday over Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi´s murder, but two alleged masterminds were exonerated as authorities said the killing was not premeditated. Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor, was murdered in October last year in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate in what Riyadh called a "rogue" operation, tipping it into one of its worst diplomatic crises.

After a year of investigation and a subsequent closed-door trial, the criminal court on Monday sentenced five defendants to death and jailed three others. Out of individuals indicted in the case -- most of whom remain unnamed -- five were sentenced to death, three face jail terms totalling 24 years, and the others were acquitted, the public prosecutor said.

The verdict -- lambasted by Turkey and rights groups as a travesty of justice -- underscores Saudi efforts to draw a line under the crisis as it seeks to reboot its international image ahead of next year’s G20 summit in Riyadh. "The public prosecution’s investigation showed that the killing was not premeditated at the start of this mission" but rather that it occurred in the heat of the moment, Saudi deputy prosecutor Shalaan al-Shalaan told a press conference. The verdict can be appealed.

Khashoggi, a 59-year-old Saudi insider-turned-critic, was strangled and his bodycut into pieces by a 15-man Saudi squad inside the consulate, according to Turkish officials. His remains have not been found.

Saudi prosecutors had said deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri oversaw Khashoggi´s killing and the US Treasury had 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.

Qahtani was investigated but not indicted "due to insufficient evidence" and Assiri was charged but eventually acquitted on the same grounds, Shalaan added.

Only Assiri appeared in the court hearings, according to Western sources. Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said "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," she added on Twitter. "That is the antithesis of justice. It is a mockery." Turkey´s foreign ministry said the judgement was "far from meeting expectations" on delivering justice.

Amnesty International condemned it as a "whitewash which brings neither justice nor the truth". "If the court ruling is meant to put the Khashoggi affair to rest, it is unlikely to succeed," HA Hellyer, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said.

In a statement on a Washington Post Twitter account, the paper´s publisher Fred Ryan said a "complete lack of transparency and the Saudi government´s refusal to cooperate with independent investigators" pointed to a "sham trial". "Those ultimately responsible, at the highest level of the Saudi government, continue to escape responsibility" for the murder, he added.

"The verdict gives Saudi authorities the chance to claim ´justice has been served´ as they are keen to move beyond the Khashoggi murder before next year´s G20 summit," Quentin de Pimodan, a Saudi expert at the Greece-based Research Institute for European and American Studies, said. "But that is unlikely especially after an untransparent investigation."

Paris-based media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders said that justice was "trampled on" with the death sentences meted out after a trial that did not respect international standards of justice. The group´s secretary general Christophe Deloire tweeted that the sentences "can be interpreted as a means to permanently silence the suspects, a way to prevent them from speaking to better cover up the truth".

Meanwhile, the son of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi welcomed a court verdict Monday that saw five people sentenced to death over the killing, saying justice had been served.

"Fairness of the judiciary is based on two principles, justice and swift litigation," Salah Khashoggi, who lives in the kingdom, said on Twitter. "Today, justice was served to children of Jamal Khashoggi. We affirm our confidence in the Saudi judiciary at all levels."

Salah has previously said he had "full confidence" in the judicial system, and criticised opponents he said were seeking to exploit the case.

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