The infamous murder of Jamal Khashoggi
The chilling details of Jamal Khashoggi's murder — and the incrimination of individuals close to Saudi royalty — still taint the image of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) as a moderniser and poison the Arab kingdom's relations with Western allies.
While MbS was quoted by U.S. broadcaster CBS as accepting "full responsibility" for the crime on Sunday, he has denied ordering the killing, described as a "rogue" operation by Saudi officials. UN investigators maintain the murder was "planned and perpetrated by officials of the state of Saudi Arabia".
Investigations by the CIA and UN claim a squad of 15 Saudis with diplomatic status, including a forensic expert carrying a bone saw, flew to Istanbul to intercept Khashoggi as he entered the Saudi consulate to arrange marriage papers.
Turkish transcripts of audio recordings, seen but not authenticated by the UN investigation, suggested Khashoggi had been injected with a sedative, suffocated and dismembered. His body has not been found and investigators say the scene was forensically cleaned before the Turks were given access.
U.S. senators briefed by the CIA pointed to a series of phone calls between MbS, his close aide Saud al-Qahtani and a member of the squad, which implicate the crown prince. UN rapporteur Agnes Callamard said the evidence of state organisation of the crime demanded a criminal investigation which included MbS.
Closed trial for the perpetrators in Saudi Arabia
The process inside Saudi Arabia to convict those involved has attracted heavy criticism.
Saudi prosecutors have 11 suspects in a closed trial, with five of those facing the death penalty, but key figures such as al-Qahtani have been shielded from the process, which does not meet international standards, Callamard asserted.
"It's held behind closed doors. The masterminds are not included in the trial. It's not known why those 11 persons have been charged and no others, considering that there were 15 people in the kill team plus their accomplice in Riyadh," Callamard said. "The trial does not include Saud al-Qahtani, even though the prosecutor himself had identified him in a public statement as a person who had incited the team to abduct Mr. Khashoggi."
Saudi prosecutors have said al-Qahtani's right-hand man Ahmed al-Asiri oversaw the operation to repatriate but not kill Khashoggi, but al-Qahtani himself has quietly disappeared since King Salman sacked him over the affair.
Turkish and Arab sources quoted by the Reuters news agency said al-Qahtani had been beamed into the Saudi consulate via Skype during the killing and had hurled insults at Khashoggi.
Yasmine Farouk, a Gulf expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that sacrificing their intelligence staff for carrying out their alleged orders puts the Saudi leadership in a difficult position. "If they hold their own people responsible for the death of Khashoggi, and it was someone from the palace that ordered it … it might have implications for their credibility inside their system," Farouk said.