Saudi Arabia is under fire for Monday’s court verdict on several suspects in the October 2019 killing in Istanbul of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post and legal U.S. resident, was murdered after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on a visit to pick up paperwork for his forthcoming marriage.

On Monday five people were sentenced to death over the killing, but two senior aides to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were exonerated.

Shalaan al-Shalaan, the Saudi deputy public prosecutor, said a total of 31 people were investigated in connection with the killing, and that 11 people were charged. Three got jail terms totaling 24 years, and the rest were acquitted.

Contrary to investigations by the UN and CIA, as well as hard evidence provided by Turkey to parties of interest, al-Shalaan claimed that their "investigation showed that the killing was not premeditated."

Although records and international reports on the murder blamed Saud al-Qahtani, the former royal adviser, Mohammed al-Oteibi, the former consul-general in Istanbul, and Ahmed Assiri, the former intelligence deputy chief, prosecutors never made a claim against those officials, and the court did not give them any penalties.

Those figures are also known for being close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

It is not known whether Salah Mohammed al-Tubaiqi, the head of forensic medicine, who allegedly dismembered Khashoggi's body, or Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, a colonel in Saudi intelligence, the alleged mastermind behind the murder, were accused or not.

Agnes Callamard, UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial executions, said in a report this May that the murder was a “deliberate, premeditated execution” and that Prince Salman should be investigated.

A CIA report said that around the time of the killing, Prince Salman sent 11 electronic messages to al-Qahtani, said to have led the team that murdered the journalist.

Experts said those messages could effectively be an order for Khashoggi’s death.  

World reactions

A Washington Post editorial “Saudi Arabia's Khashoggi verdict is a mockery of justice" criticized the verdict for not holding associates of Prince bin Salman responsible.

Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East research director, called the verdict a whitewash which brings neither justice nor the truth for Khashoggi and his loved ones.

"Saudi Arabia’s courts routinely deny defendants access to lawyers and condemn people to death following grossly unfair trials," she added.

Saudi Arabia “must ensure” that all those responsible for the “brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi are held accountable,” said British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.

“Mr. Khashoggi’s family deserve to see justice done for his brutal murder,” he added.

"To claim that a handful of intelligence operatives committed this murder is to mock the world’s intelligence," said Fahrettin Altun, Turkey's communications director.

“The ruling “falls short of the expectations of Turkey and the international community for the clarification of all aspects of this murder and the serving of justice,” said Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hami Aksoy in a written statement.

Agnes Callamard, UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial executions, said the Saudi Kingdom was responsible for Khashoggi's execution under international human rights law, adding that the trial "at no point" considered the kingdom's responsibilities.

"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," she said.

Nobel Prize-winning Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman said Mohammed bin Salman is the only culprit, as the rest are just tools in the Khashoggi murder.  

‘Privy secretary’ of bin Salman

Sources with close ties to the royal family called al-Qahtani the “privy secretary” of Prince Salman.

According to the sources, he also speaks on behalf of the crown prince on many occasions and gives instructions to some security forces.

In a column for the Washington Post, Khashoggi said al-Qahtani had a list of Saudi critics and called on Saudis to contribute names to this list.

In reply to the allegation, al-Qahtani wrote last year on Twitter: “Do you think I make decisions without guidance? I am an employee and a faithful executor of the orders of my lord the king and my lord the faithful crown prince.”

There are also claims al-Qahtani established a social media team to follow posts and the internet and prepare reports.  

Former deputy intelligence chief Asiri

Ahmad al-Asiri, the former deputy intelligence chief said to have directed the murder along with al-Qahtani, was not accused by the court and was released.

The Saudi indictment claimed that Asiri instructed the hit squad to bring Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia and use force if necessary, but that he was not told about the murder.

With the indictment, Saudi authorities tried to convince the public that an unnamed "head of the duty team" had gone beyond instructions to commit the murder.

This way, the court aimed to exonerate Asiri, the Saudi leadership, and figures with close ties to the Crown prince.

However, after the emergence of the crisis the Saudi administration dismissed Asiri.  

Consul Mohammad al-Otaibi

Mohammad al-Otaibi, Saudi Arabia's former consul general in Istanbul who hosted Khashoggi’s killers, was not accused by the court and was released.

In November 2018, the U.S. put Mohammed al-Otaibi and the 16 other members of the operation team on a sanctions list for having a role in the killing of Khashoggi.

Al-Otaibi was accused of involvement in the planning and execution of the Khashoggi murder.