On Monday, the authoritarian kingdom of Saudi Arabia sentenced five operatives to death for the grisly murder and dismemberment of the Washington Post journalist
Jamal Khashoggi, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, in October, 2018.
Another three men were dispatched to jail; three more were acquitted.
The outcome was, in the words of human-rights experts with whom I spoke after the verdict was announced, “typical Saudi justice.”
The trial was held in secret.
The government’s evidence was never publicly released.
The convicted were never named, even in the verdict.
And the few diplomats allowed to attend the trial had to swear that they would not disclose any details or identities.
Most strikingly, the three men widely believed to be ultimately responsible for Khashoggi’s murder—including the powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman,
his close adviser, Saud al-Qahtani, and the former deputy head of intelligence, Ahmed al-Assiri—got off scot-free.
“This is not a surprise. It is true to form,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, told me.
“The Saudis are compounding their stream of laughable lies with a laughable verdict.”
During the past two years, the ambitious young royal has consolidated Saudi Arabia’s five major branches of power under his gold-embroidered robe.
He has also been the key Saudi liaison to the Trump Administration and a close ally of Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.
Khashoggi, a former unofficial spokesman for the oil-rich monarchy, fled the kingdom in 2017 and took residence in the United States,
where he became the prince’s most vocal and visible critic.
Weeks before his death, Khashoggi told me that M.B.S., still only the heir apparent to the Saudi throne, had already become more autocratic
than any of the previous six kings.
He compared the prince’s absolute powers to those of Iran’s Supreme Leader:
“He has no tolerance or willingness to accommodate critics.”
In one of Khashoggi’s early columns for the Post, he says that he has to write as his conscience dictates.
“To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison,” he writes.
“I can speak when so many cannot.
I want you to know that Saudi Arabia has not always been as it is now.
We Saudis deserve better.”
M.B.S.’s culpability—and premeditation—was the issue implicitly on trial.
The kingdom originally lied, saying that Khashoggi had walked out of the consulate shortly after he’d arrived.
It took three weeks for the government to admit that he’d been murdered; it claimed that the execution was a rogue operation,
despite the extraordinary planning required for a sophisticated covert operation on foreign soil.
Turkey then released videotapes of two Saudi hit squads—comprising fifteen people in total—arriving in Istanbul the day before the murder.
It had video of Khashoggi going into the consulate.
Turkish intelligence recorded all that followed, including Khashoggi’s struggle to fight off Saudi security, his gasping suffocation, and the bone-sawing that followed,
as his body was cut up into pieces.
The Turks also had video footage of a body double—one of the men who had flown in for the operation—leaving the diplomatic mission dressed in Khashoggi’s clothing.
The U.N.’s report, released in June, concluded that “every expert consulted finds it inconceivable that an operation of this scale could be implemented without the Crown
Prince being aware, at a minimum, that some sort of mission of a criminal nature, directed at Mr. Khashoggi, was being launched.”
But, in announcing the verdict, the Saudi deputy public prosecutor, Shalaan al-Shalaan, declared that the investigation showed that “the killing was not premeditated.
The decision was taken at the spur of the moment.”
Last year, the Republican-led Senate passed a resolution—notably, with unanimity—blaming the crown prince for the Khashoggi murder,
despite pushback from the White House.
The outcome triggered disbelief among Saudi experts.
“Are we to believe these individuals conceived, planned, and executed the operations without direction and authority from Saudi leadership?
Not likely,” James Smith, a former U.S. Ambassador to the kingdom, told me.
“The Saudis do not want to solve the case.
They want it to go away.”
Qahtani, the prince’s adviser, was also not on trial, despite widespread indications that he played a central role in the Khashoggi murder.
He had masterminded the arrest of hundreds of dissidents.
He has been identified by prisoners as an interrogator and torturer.
Citing intelligence sources, Reuters reported that Qahtani ran the Khashoggi execution—in real time—via Skype.
And he had long worked at the side of the crown prince.
A few months before the murder, he tweeted, “Do you think I make decisions without guidance?
I am an employee and a faithful executor of the orders of my lord the king and my lord the faithful crown prince.”
Qahtani was moved aside after the murder; he has not been seen in public since then.
Various reports from the secretive kingdom have suggested that he has been under house arrest, or has had his movements restricted,
or has been occasionally allowed to travel within the Gulf.
But nothing official has been released.
Whitson said, “Given that the chief architects of this murder were not even investigated or indicted—and I mean Qahtani and M.B.S.
—there is no doubt that this trial was merely a mechanism to offer a theatre of process devoid of substance.”
Agnès Callamard, a special rapporteur for the U.N.’s human-rights office who led the U.N. investigation, voiced similar outrage.
“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,” Callamard tweeted on Monday.
“Under international human-rights law, the killing of Mr. #Khashoggi was an extrajudicial execution for which the State of #SaudiArabia is responsible.
But at no point did the trial considered the responsibilities of the State.”
Adam Coogle, a Saudi specialist at Human Rights Watch, noted that the prosecutor’s office is under the direct supervision of the royal court,
so there is no meaningful independence from top Saudi leadership.
“It appears that this entire investigation and trial was done at least in part to shield top leaders from accountability,” he told me.
One of the three men acquitted for “insufficient evidence” was Assiri.
He had reportedly ordered Khashoggi to be abducted in Istanbul, where the Post journalist had gone to marry his Turkish fiancée,
and then repatriated to Saudi Arabia.
Qahtani and Assiri reportedly worked closely together under the crown prince.
Although the names of the eight men convicted have not been published, Callamard identified the five men facing the death penalty in June.
They included Salah Mohammed Tubaigy, a forensic doctor with the interior ministry, who dismembered the body, and Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb,
an intelligence officer who was often photographed with the crown prince during his foreign travels, including to the United States last year,
just months before the Khashoggi murder.
He also worked with Qahtani.
The other three are reportedly Fahad Shabib Albalawi, Turki Muserref Alshehri, and Waleed Abdullah Alshehri.
The U.N. rapporteur said the defense team argued that the men were all merely carrying out orders from state institutions.
The consensus among experts is that the trial’s conclusion has not ended the controversy for the crown prince—and at a crucial juncture in his plans to develop the
kingdom from an oil-based rentier economy into a modern and diversified state, as part of his Vision 2030 campaign.
Bruce Riedel, a former senior C.I.A. official and the author of “Kings and Presidents: Saudi Arabia and the United States Since FDR,”
called the outcome “farce, not justice.”
He added, “M.B.S. has made the case against himself stronger.”
Smith, the former Ambassador, said that, in the absence of a credible and transparent investigation,
“this episode will forever tarnish his reputation and the reputation of Saudi Arabia.”
The verdict came just days after President Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes a provision that the director of National Intelligence
submit to Congress—within thirty days—a list of the Saudis believed to be responsible for the Khashoggi murder, the subsequent coverup,
or for impeding a fair and impartial investigation.
The original bill, submitted by Representative Tom Malinowski, a Democrat of New Jersey, called for everyone on the list to be sanctioned and denied a visa.
The final bill, stripped down by Republicans in conference, removed the punishment of sanctions.
But it still called for publication of their names—which Saudi Arabia has yet to do partially or in full.
“M.B.S. should already be on the list of shame for Khashoggi’s murder,” Malinowski told me.
“If he thinks these verdicts are going to help him, then he’s badly miscalculated.
Executing his henchmen for following his orders will be one more reason to include him on the list.”
Meanwhile, Khashoggi’s body has never been found.