Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor said Thursday that he is seeking the death penalty for five people suspected of taking part in the grisly slaying of dissident Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, who disappeared after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in early October.
The unnamed suspects, part of a 15-man Saudi team sent to Turkey with orders to intercept the journalist, have been charged with “ordering and committing the crime,” in which the journalist is believed to have been killed and dismembered inside the consulate building.
As in previous versions presented by the Saudi government, the narrative Thursday appeared designed to shield the kingdom’s crown prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman from accusations that he had prior knowledge Khashoggi was to be killed.
According to the prosecutor’s statement, the five suspects were part of a team sent to persuade or force Khashoggi to return to Saudi Arabia. But Khashoggi was instead killed during a physical altercation and the five agreed with the rest of the team to send back a false report to their superiors saying the journalist had refused to return and had left the consulate “after the failure of negotiating or forcing his return.”
Six other suspects would also be punished, the prosecutor said, while investigations of 10 other individuals continue.
Turkish officials, including Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, quickly termed the Saudi statement “insufficient.” Cavusoglu insisted in a televised statement that Khashoggi’s death was premeditated.
Yasin Aktay, an advisor to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said the statement wasn’t “very credible.”
The death of Khashoggi, a onetime insider turned critic of the crown prince and a resident of the U.S., has spurred a wave of international anger against Saudi Arabia and its ruler.
Hours after the Saudi statement, the Trump administration, working under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, announced sanctions against 17 Saudi individuals involved in the operation, including the 15 members of the operations team, Saudi Consul General Mohammad Otaibi and Saud Qahtani, a top advisor to the crown prince.
“The Saudi officials we are sanctioning were involved in the abhorrent killing of Jamal Khashoggi,” said U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin.
“The United States continues to diligently work to ascertain all of the facts and will hold accountable each of those we find responsible in order to achieve justice for Khashoggi’s fiancee, children, and the family he leaves behind…. The government of Saudi Arabia must take appropriate steps to end any targeting of political dissidents or journalists.”
The Saudi statement marks “a positive first step” in the Khashoggi case, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Thursday. “It is important to continue those steps to full accountability.”
The Washington Post, for whom Khashoggi wrote columns, questioned that assessment.
“From the start,” said Publisher and CEO Fred Ryan in a statement, “the Saudi ‘investigation’ has been an effort to shield those ultimately responsible for this heinous crime when there is every reason to believe that it was authorized at the highest levels of the Saudi government. It is impossible to have confidence that we have gotten to the truth when the purported investigations were neither transparent nor independent and when evidence continues to be withheld.
“The U.S. government should be demanding an independent investigation that gets to the truth about the murder of an innocent journalist.”
Critics insist that an operation involving key members of Prince Mohammed’s inner circle could not have gone ahead without his approval.
That anger has undercut the crown prince’s high-stakes charm offensive to attract investment from across the globe. It has also risked his central role as a regional leader supporting Trump administration initiatives in the Middle East, including its anti-Iran stance and its dealings with the Israelis and Palestinians.
Besides distancing the crown prince and top associates from accusations of having had prior knowledge that Khashoggi was to be killed, the prosecutor’s statement represented the latest change in Riyadh’s frequently shifting explanations of the disappearance.
After insisting that the writer had left the consulate on his own on Oct. 2 after coming in to deal with paperwork, the Saudis later appeared to accept Turkey’s assertion that the operation’s aim had been to kill Khashoggi. Now, Riyadh says the order had been to “bring back [Khashoggi] by means of persuasion, and if persuasion fails, to do [so] by force.”
There was no elaboration Thursday on who first came up with the plans, but an order was issued to the mission leader by one of Prince Mohammed’s lieutenants, Saudi deputy intelligence chief Ahmed Asiri. The mission leader formed a 15-man squad comprising a negotiation group, an intelligence group and a logistical group.
A former advisor, who according to the statement had “specialization in media,” was contacted by the mission leader.
The advisor, presumably Qahtani, met with the mission leader and the negotiation team. He believed that Khashoggi had been “co-opted by organizations and states hostile to the kingdom,” and that his staying abroad represented “a threat to national security.”
The mission commander contacted a collaborator in Turkey to secure a safe house and brought along a forensics expert “for the purpose of removing evidence from the scene in the case force had to be used to return the victim,” said Shaalan Shaalan, a spokesman for the prosecutor. Other team members were to disable surveillance cameras in the consulate.
The forensics expert, said Shaalan, joined the team without the knowledge of his superiors.
But then the head of the negotiation team, after surveying the consulate, believed it would not be possible to transfer Khashoggi to the safe house by force. He decided to “murder” Khashoggi if the negotiations broke down.
After a “physical altercation,” Khashoggi was forcibly restrained and “injected with a large amount of a drug resulting in an overdose that led to his death,” said Shaalan.
He was then dismembered and transferred outside the consulate building and delivered to the collaborator. The mission leader then agreed with the negotiation group to “write a false report” asserting that Khashoggi had left the consulate building “after the failure of negotiating or forcing his return.”
After the uproar over Khashoggi’s death, both Asiri and Qahtani were relieved of their posts. The prosecutor said Qahtani had also been slapped with a travel ban while the investigation was ongoing. Otaibi has dropped out of sight.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir reasserted in a news conference in Riyadh on Thursday that the crown prince “has nothing to do with this issue,” and characterizing the killing as a “rogue operation” with “individuals exceeding their authority and going beyond their mandate.”
"These individuals made a tremendous mistake and for this mistake they will pay a price,” said Jubeir, adding that the case was in the country’s court system.
He also accused Saudi Arabia’s rivals of politicizing the incident.
The kingdom, he insisted, was being subjected to “a vicious and illogical attack.”
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.