Alwaght- A recent Saudi court ruling that dismissed charges against top officials in the brutal murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi has drawn fierce condemnation from Turkey, the UN, rights groups and American lawmakers who argue it failed to deliver justice.
In a televised press conference in Riyadh on Monday, Saudi Deputy Public Prosecutor Shaalan al-Shaalan announced conclusion of the so-called trial in the Khashoggi case that was closed to the public.
He said that 31 suspects had been investigated in connection with the killing, 21 of them arrested and 11 put on trial.
Death sentences were issued for five people and jail terms totaling 24 years for three others, he added, without naming any of those sentenced.
The remaining three, however, were found not guilty, including Saud al-Qahtani, a former top adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Ahmed al-Assiri, an ex-deputy intelligence chief, and Mohamed al-Otaibi, who was consul general in the kingdom’s consulate in the Turkish city of Istanbul when the killing happened.
Both Qahtani and Assiri were relieved of their duties in the immediate aftermath of Khashoggi's assassination last year. Qahtani and Otaibi were also sanctioned a year ago by the US Treasury for their involvement in the murder.
Khashoggi — an outspoken critic of the heir to the Saudi throne — went into self-imposed exile in the US in 2017. The Washington Post columnist entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, to obtain paperwork he needed to marry his Turkish fiancée.
Inside Riyadh’s mission, he was confronted by a Saudi hit team, who killed him and brutally dismembered his body.
The CIA has concluded that bin Salman had ordered the murder. The journalist’s remains have yet to be found.
Elsewhere in his remarks, Shaalan claimed that Khashoggi’s killers had decided to murder him after their arrival in Istanbul.
"Our investigations show that there was no premeditation to kill at the beginning of the mission,” he claimed.
Shaalan’s claims sparked a wave of condemnations from the world body, human rights organizations and US legislators.
Turkey described the verdict as "scandalous" and said those responsible for the murder had been granted immunity.
"Those who dispatched a death squad to Istanbul on a private jet ... and sought to sweep this murder under the rug have been granted immunity," President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's top press aide, Fahrettin Altun, wrote on Twitter.
The foreign ministry said in a statement that the decision "is far from meeting the expectations of both our country and the international community to shed light on the murder with all its dimensions, and deliver justice".
Ankara said there was no clarity on key aspects of the murder including the whereabouts of Khashoggi's body, labelling it a "fundamental deficiency" in terms of accountability.
HRW: Trial 'all but satisfactory'
Ahmed Benchemsi, spokesman for Human Rights Watch, told the Doha-based Al Jazeera broadcaster that the trial was “all but satisfactory".
The case was “shrouded in secrecy since the beginning, and it’s still ... until now ... We do not know the identities of those masked perpetrators, we don’t know the specific charge leveled against who exactly,” he said.
"Saudi prosecutors did not even attempt to investigate the upper levels of this crime, and whether they played a role in ordering the killing, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman,” he added.
Adam Coogle, who researches Saudi Arabia for the HRW, underlined the need for an independent probe.
"Saudi Arabia’s absolution of its senior leadership of any culpability in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi raises serious concerns over the fairness of the criminal proceedings,” he said. “Saudi Arabia’s handling of the murder, from complete denial to hanging the murder on lower-level operatives in a trial that lacked transparency, demonstrates the need for an independent criminal inquiry".
Amnesty: Verdict 'a whitewash'
In turn, Amnesty International blasted the verdict as “a whitewash” and said Saudi officials had failed the slain journalist and his family.
“This verdict ... brings neither justice nor the truth for Jamal Khashoggi and his loved ones. The trial has been closed to the public and to independent monitors, with no information available as to how the investigation was carried out,” Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director, said in a statement.
“The verdict fails to address the Saudi authorities’ involvement in this devastating crime or clarify the location of Jamal Khashoggi’s remains,” she added.
UN rapporteur: Masterminds walking free
In a series of tweets, Agnes Callamard, the UN rapporteur investigating Khashoggi’s killing, condemned the ruling as a “travesty,” noting that the trial had failed to consider the involvement of the state.
Impunity for the killing of a journalist commonly reveals political repression, corruption, abuse of power, propaganda, and even international complicity. All are present in #SaudiArabia killing of #JamalKhashoggi.
— Agnes Callamard (@AgnesCallamard) December 23, 2019
"The execution of Jamal Khashoggi demanded an investigation into the chain of command to identify the masterminds, as well as those who incited, allowed or turned a blind eye to the murder, such as the Crown Prince,” she wrote.
"This was not investigated. Bottom line: 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. That is the antithesis of justice. It is a mockery.”
In her 101-page report released in June, Callamard said that there is “sufficient credible evidence” indicating that the heir to the Saudi throne bears responsibility for the murder and thus should be investigated.
UK: Khashoggi’s family deserve to see justice
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described Khashoggi’s murder as “a terrible crime.”
"Mr. Khashoggi’s family deserve to see justice done for his brutal murder. Saudi Arabia must ensure all of those responsible are held to account and that such an atrocity can never happen again,” he said in a statement.
Washington Post: An ‘insult’ to Khashoggi’s family
The Washington Post editorial board called Monday’s sentences a “travesty of justice.”
“The result is an insult to Khashoggi’s family and to all those, including a bipartisan congressional majority, who have demanded genuine accountability in the case,” it wrote in an op-ed.
The editorial board also warned the international community against welcoming the result of the Saudi trial.
"International acceptance of the result would not only be morally wrong but dangerous, too: It would send the reckless Saudi ruler the message that his murderous adventurism will be tolerated,” it said.
The dissident Saudi Twitter account Prisoners of Conscience criticized the trial of Khashoggi’s killers as a “comedy,” saying that all those involved in the crime should be held accountable.
"Just a year ago, the US intelligence published a report revealing correspondences between Saud al-Qahtani and Bin Salman before, during and following Khashoggi’s assassination,” it pointed out.
"Today, the Saudi judiciary claims that the crime took place without prior planning and acquits Saud al-Qahtani! What kind of independent judiciary is this?!” it added.
American lawmakers fume at sentences
Several US legislators censured the verdict as well as US President Donald Trump, who has shielded bin Salman from the blame for Khashoggi’s assassination and emphasized Riyadh’s arms deals with Washington.
Senator Bernie Sanders, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, highlighted the CIA’s conclusion and slammed the trial as “a cover-up” by the Saudi regime.
"This sham trial, carried out by a despotic and lawless regime, looks more like a cover-up,” he said. “Maybe Donald Trump might want to stop proclaiming his love and affection for the Saudi dictatorship".
The CIA concluded that the Saudi crown prince ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. This sham trial, carried out by a despotic and lawless regime, looks more like a cover-up.
Similarly, Democrat Senator Tim Kaine cited the CIA’s assessment on the case, urging the US government to seek justice for Khashoggi.
"Senior Saudi officials continue to escape accountability for the state-sponsored murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” said Kaine, who represents Virginia, where Khashoggi lived.
“The Trump Administration should be demanding justice for the brutal killing of a journalist and VA resident instead of ignoring the CIA’s assessment of who killed him,” he added.
Connecticut Democrat Senator Richard Blumenthal blamed the US president for bin Salam’s evasion of responsibility.
"After a sham trail, the masterminds behind Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder walk away scot-free,” he said. “Trump is also culpable - having done next to nothing to hold the Crown Prince accountable for murdering a brave, truth-seeking journalist".
Congressman Adam Schiff, who chairs the US House Intelligence Committee, rejected the Saudi prosecutor’s assertion that the Khashoggi’s killing had not been planned.
"This sentence is a continuation of the Kingdom’s effort to distance Saudi leadership, including the Crown Prince, from the brutal assassination of a journalist and US resident, Jamal Khashoggi,” he tweeted. “This was a premeditated murder, not a 'snap decision' or rogue operation".