RIYADH/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia on Monday sentenced five people to death and three to jail over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but a U.N. investigator accused it of making a “mockery” of justice by allowing the masterminds of last year’s killing to go free.
A Saudi court rejected the findings of a U.N. inquiry by ruling that the killing was not premeditated, but carried out “at the spur of the moment”. Saudi Deputy Public Prosecutor and spokesman Shalaan al-Shalaan said the court dismissed charges against three of the 11 people tried, finding them not guilty.
A senior official of the Trump administration, which critics say has been too soft on Saudi Arabia over the killing of Khashoggi, called the verdicts “an important step” in holding those responsible accountable.
Another senior U.S. official said Washington would go on pressing for full accountability. Khashoggi was a U.S. resident and a critic of the kingdom’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MbS.
A source familiar with U.S. intelligence assessments said key U.S. government agencies rejected the validity of the court proceedings and CIA experts still believed the crown prince personally ordered, or at least approved of, the killing.
The source said the five men condemned to death were essentially foot soldiers in the killing, while two senior security officials acquitted played a more significant role.
A Saudi prosecutor said there was no evidence connecting one of those senior officials, Saud al-Qahtani, to the killing and the court dismissed charges against Ahmed al-Asiri, a former deputy intelligence chief.
Khashoggi was last seen at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018, where he had gone to obtain documents for his impending wedding. His body was reportedly dismembered and removed from the building, and his remains have not been found.
The murder caused a global uproar, tarnishing the crown prince’s image. Some Western governments, as well as the CIA, said they believed he had ordered the killing.
Saudi officials say he had no role, though in September MbS indicated some personal accountability, saying “it happened under my watch”.
Agnes Callamard, the U.N. special rapporteur for extrajudicial summary or arbitrary executions, said the trial verdict was a “mockery” of justice.
“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 said on Twitter.
Eleven Saudi suspects were put on trial in secretive proceedings in the capital Riyadh. None of their names was immediately released.
“The investigation showed that the killing was not premeditated ... The decision was taken at the spur of the moment,” Shalaan said, a position directly contradicting the findings of a United Nations-led investigation.
The U.N.-led inquiry reported in February that the evidence pointed to “a brutal and premeditated killing, planned and perpetrated” by Saudi officials.
The publisher of the Washington Post, a newspaper for which Khashoggi wrote a column, said the lack of transparency and the Saudi government’s refusal to cooperate with independent investigators suggested “a sham trial”.
“Those ultimately responsible, at the highest level of the Saudi government, continue to escape responsibility for the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” Fred Ryan said in a statement.
Human rights group Amnesty International said the verdict was a “whitewash” that failed to address the Saudi authorities’ involvement or the location of Khashoggi’s remains.
However, one of Khashoggi’s sons said the verdicts had been fair to his children.
“We affirm our confidence in the Saudi judiciary at all levels, that it has been fair to us and that justice has been achieved,” Salah Khashoggi said on Twitter.
Last November, the Saudi prosecutor said Qahtani, a former high-profile Saudi royal adviser, had discussed Khashoggi’s activities before he entered the Saudi consulate with the team which went on to kill him.
The prosecutor had said Qahtani acted in coordination with Asiri, who he said had ordered Khashoggi’s repatriation from Turkey and that the lead negotiator on the ground then decided to kill him.
Both men were dismissed from their positions but while Asiri was tried, Qahtani was not.
On Monday, Shalaan said Asiri has been tried and released due to insufficient evidence, and Qahtani had been investigated but was not charged and had been released.
Shalaan also said the Saudi consul-general to Turkey at the time, Mohammed al-Otaibi, had been freed after Turkish witnesses said Otaibi had been with them on the day of the crime. Two weeks ago, the United States barred Otaibi from entering the country.
Sources familiar with the matter told Reuters last year that Maher Mutreb, the lead negotiator, and Salah al-Tubaigy, a forensic expert specializing in autopsies, were also on trial for the murder and could face the death penalty.
On Monday, Shalaan said that when the Saudi team that entered the consulate saw it would not be possible to transfer Khashoggi to a safe place to continue negotiating, they decided to kill him.
“It was agreed, in consultation between the head of the negotiating team and the culprits, to kill Jamal Khashoggi inside the consulate,” Shalaan said in response to questions from journalists.
Turkey said the trial outcome was far from serving justice.
“The fact that important issues like the location of the late Khashoggi’s body, the identification of the instigators and, if there are any, the local co-operators, are still in the dark is a fundamental shortcoming to justice being served and accountability,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said.
Riyadh’s criminal court pronounced the death penalty on five defendants “for committing and directly participating in the murder of the victim”. The three sentenced to prison were given various sentences totaling 24 years “for their role in covering up this crime and violating the law”.
Shalaan added the investigations proved there was no “prior enmity” between those convicted and Khashoggi.
The verdicts can be appealed.
Reporting by Marwa Rashed in Riyadh; Additional reporting by Nafisa Eltahir, Maha El Dahan and Tuqa Khalid in Dubai, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations and Mark Hosenball, Alexandra Alper, David Brunnstrom and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Writing by Lisa Barrington and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Giles Elgood and Howard Goller