Riyadh has prosecuted eight unnamed men for the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi but the UN official charged with overseeing the case said the verdict lacked “moral legitimacy”.
A senior UN official described a Saudi trial that handed out prison sentences to eight unnamed men over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi as a ‘parody’.
Comments by Agnes Callamard, the body’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, summed up the incredulity many felt over Riyadh’s ostensible attempts to bring those responsible for Khashoggi’s death to justice.
The Saudi columnist for the Washington Post, who had become increasingly critical of the country’s domestic and foreign policy, was murdered inside the country’s consulate in Istanbul by a hit squad.
Western and Turkish intelligence officials concluded that the killers were acting on the orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS).
As the killers escaped Turkey before details of the crime came to light, any hope for bringing them to account fell upon the very state accused of sending them in the first place.
While commending the decision to drop the death penalty for the convicted, Callamard said the “verdicts carry no legal or moral legitimacy,” adding: “They came at the end of a process which was neither fair, nor just, or transparent.”
The UN officials main contention was that those responsible for ordering the murder were not put on trial. She singled out the lack of scrutiny over the role MBS played in the fiasco.
A year earlier, Callamard authored a report, concluding that the killing of Khashoggi must have required significant organisational support from the Saudi government and that there were credible grounds for investigating the crown prince’s ‘liability’ over the murder.
The eight unnamed defendants were given sentences of between seven and twenty years. A Saudi judge had previously handed out five death sentences but capital punishment was dropped after Khashoggi’s son formally forgave his father’s killers. Under Saudi law, such a pardon is grounds to commute punishment for murders and homicides.
Why drop the death penalty?
Under Saudi Arabia’s opaque system of law and governance, it is hard to pin down a specific reason for why the death penalty was dropped.
The Khashoggi family’s pardon of the killers has been the subject of speculation with some Saudi activists suggesting that they were pressured into issuing a statement forgiving the killers by the Saudi government.
“They are terrified of the government and will say whatever he wants them to,” said the exiled Saudi activist Alia Abu Tayeh al Huwaiti, according to the Telegraph.
She added that the family had been left with little other choice but to accept compensation from the Saudi regime, which amounted to a monthly stipend of $8,000 a month and properties valued at up to $3m each.
Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, has vehemently rejected the idea of pardoning those responsible for her partner’s death.
In response to the Khashoggi family’s statement in May, she wrote: “The killers came from Saudi with premeditation to lure, ambush (and) kill him. Nobody has the right to pardon the killers. We will not pardon the killers nor those who ordered the killing.”
Besides the issue of a pardon, the Saudi authorities have very real incentive in ensuring that those who carried out the act of killing Khashoggi are not executed.
Assuming the chain of command stretched from the killers to MBS, as most intelligence agencies have concluded, killing those carrying out orders could be a deterrent for those loyal to the crown prince to carry out future orders.
Knowing that failure or public exposure of an operation could result in eventual execution, would give even the most ardent loyalist pause for consideration.
Any harsh punishment against low ranking members of the hit squad may also create pressure on the Saudis to punish those believed to have had an organisational role, such as the MBS aide, Saud al Qahtani.
Qahtani has been sanctioned by the US for his role in the murder but a Saudi court exonnerated him in December 2019.