BEIRUT — A court in Saudi Arabia sentenced five men to death and three to prison terms over the killing of Saudi dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last year, the kingdom’s public prosecutor said Monday.
The sentences matched the Saudi argument that the killing was not premeditated or ordered by the royal court but was instead a last-minute decision by Saudi agents on the ground — a narrative that contradicts ample evidence that the agents came with an intent to kill and the tools to do so.
The verdicts also raise the prospect that Saudi Arabia could behead the men who carried out the killing while shielding those who ordered it. The kingdom continues to deny any involvement by the crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, and his top aides, who foreign analysts say were probably behind the murder.
The killing of Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi media figure and columnist for The Washington Post, caused international outrage and battered the reputation of Crown Prince Mohammed. The kingdom’s handling of the case has raised further concerns. Turkey has accused Saudi Arabia of not cooperating in the investigation, a failure that a United Nations specialist said could amount to obstruction of justice.
The trial, held in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, was shrouded in secrecy. The kingdom did not reveal the suspects’ names, and foreign diplomats who attended sessions of the trial were sworn to silence.
The verdicts were unlikely to appease critics who say that the killing of Khashoggi, 59, was representative of Mohammed’s harsh rule and part of a wider campaign to silence critical voices at home and abroad.
Khashoggi, who lived in Virginia, entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018, to obtain paperwork he needed to marry his Turkish fiancee. Inside, he was confronted by Saudi agents, who killed him and dismembered his body. His remains have yet to be found.
On Monday, a spokesman for the kingdom’s public prosecutor told reporters in Riyadh that no evidence had been found that the killing had been planned ahead of time. Instead, he said, agents had been sent to Istanbul to “negotiate” with Khashoggi and decided to kill him after that effort failed.
But investigations by Turkish authorities and a UN specialist found vast evidence of premeditation, such as the arrival of 15 Saudi agents in Istanbul in the hours before Khashoggi’s killing. They included a “body double” who sought to leave a false trail of surveillance video indicating that Khashoggi was still alive and a forensic doctor who the Turks say arrived with a bone saw that was used to dismember Khashoggi’s body.
Recordings captured by Turkish intelligence inside the consulate before, during, and after the killing, and shared with the UN investigator, revealed the agents discussing how to fit Khashoggi’s body into suitcases. When Khashoggi reached the consulate, one of the agents referred to him as the “sacrificial animal.”
After his death, no effort was made to resuscitate him.
The UN specialist also reported a vast effort by Saudi officials to cover up the killing, including by forensically cleansing the crime scene before allowing Turkish investigators access to it.
On Twitter, Fahrettin Altun, a spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, wrote that the leaders who had ordered the operation had been “granted immunity.”
“To claim that a handful of intelligence operatives committed this murder is to mock the world’s intelligence — to say the least,” he wrote.
Although no evidence has been made public that directly implicates Mohammed in the killing, an assessment by the CIA found that he had probably ordered the operation, which employed two private jets, two diplomatic facilities, and the team of agents.
The crown prince has said that he played no role in the killing but that he bore some responsibility for it because it happened on his watch.
An investigation by Agnès Callamard, the special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions for the UN human rights agency, concluded that there was “credible evidence, warranting further investigation, of high-level Saudi officials’ individual liability, including the crown prince’s.”
The Saudi public prosecutor’s office said Monday that it had examined 31 suspects and arrested 21 of them. Of those, 11 were put on trial. Five men were sentenced to death for their direct involvement in Khashoggi’s killing. Three others were given a total of 24 years in prison for covering up the crime and violating other laws.
On Twitter, one of Khashoggi’s adult children, Salah Khashoggi, who lives in Saudi Arabia, praised the Saudi judges as fair.
“We confirm our faith in the Saudi judiciary at all levels and in its giving us justice and ensuring fairness,” he wrote.
Months after the killing, he and Khashoggi’s other children received tens of thousands of dollars and millions in real estate from the government to compensate for their father’s murder.
Turkish officials have identified the men they believe were inside the consulate when Khashoggi was killed, but it was unclear whether they were the same men sentenced Monday because the Saudis did not release their names. The kingdom did, however, identify three suspects who were not sentenced.
Mohammed al-Otaibi, the Saudi consul in Istanbul who gave reporters a tour of the consulate days after Khashoggi’s killing, was released without charge.
Ahmed Asseri, the deputy head of Saudi intelligence, who Saudi officials initially said had overseen the operation, was also released.
Saud al-Qahtani, a top aide to the crown prince, was not put on trial because the prosecutor’s office said there was a lack of evidence against him. Al-Qahtani’s exoneration is likely to rankle the United States, which imposed sanctions on him for what it said was his role in overseeing the team that carried out the killing.
On Monday, Saudi Twitter accounts published what appeared to be coordinated posts voicing the Saudi people’s trust in Asseri and al-Qahtani.
The sentences announced Monday were preliminary and are subject to appeal. Death sentences in Saudi Arabia are usually carried out by beheading in public squares.