As we bid 2019 farewell, the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi remains the news that shattered public opinion the most since it happened, in the fall of 2018.
The case has been yielding one disappointment after another.
At the beginning, Saudis vehemently defended their country, and held Qatar, Turkey, the mafia, and “hidden hands” responsible for Khashoggi’s abduction. Saudi citizens called into question the authenticity of the murder suspects’ pictures released by the Turkish media, and accused Khadija Jenkiz, Khashoggi’s fiancee, of being a con woman who plotted the whole “conspiracy.”
So it came as a great shock when the kingdom finally admitted that the perpetrators were government employees. Now, the revelation of the whole truth concerning Khajoggi’s murder, has become a prerequisite for those Saudi citizens who follow the case and who hope to live one day in a civilized country ruled by law. They are adamant that the biggest scandal in the history of Saudi Arabia should not be repeated.
Such hope is all the more stronger as news of detention, torture and sexual abuse continue to emerge.
But it was yet another disappointment when the prosecution’s spokesman, Shaalan al-Shaalan, announced the verdict: five people are to be executed and others sent to prison, while Saud al-Qahtani, former advisor to the royal court, Ahmed Asseeri, vice president of Saudi intelligence agency, and Muhammad al-Otaiby, former Saudi consul in Turkey, were all acquitted.
How will the Khajoggi story end?
“Al-Arabiyya” website wrote that the individual who ordered the killing of Khajoggi is the self-same who had been leading the negotiations to repatriate the journalist.
This leads us to conjecture that one of the five people who were sentenced to death may be Mahir Mutrib. Two others could be among those who appeared clearly in the footage from Turkish security cameras, such as “the double” and his companion, and Mahir Mutrib’s bodyguards. As for the rest, they are believed to be consulate employees who covered up the crime.
Unclear security footage from the Saudi consul’s home was considered sufficient evidence that the consul was inside his home and not at the consulate at the time of the crime.
The trial was conducted in secret. Local newspapers say it consisted of nine hearings that were not open to the public.
Those who were sentenced to death also remain unknown.
And these verdicts are preliminary. They need the support of the court of appeals, then the validation of the Supreme Court, to be finally submitted to the king for approval.
How could that be achieved?
Some legal experts consider the prosecution’s statement contradictory and ambiguous. Many were surprised that it was issued by the prosecution in the first place, instead of the court. Even more so, that the names of the accused were not mentioned, although a preliminary verdict, issued in accordance with Article 68 raised concerns about vilifying prisoners of conscience before they even go on trial, as in the case of the so-called “May 2018 Group” whose members were defamed on the front pages of Saudi newspapers the same day they were arrested.
In any case, the spokesman’s declaration that “despite the fact that the murder weapons were made available and the killers were ready upon Khajoggi’s arrival to the consulate, there was no pre-meditated intention or enmity between the convicts and the victim,” has also cast doubt as to its implications for the future.
A “retribution verdict,” to which five people were sentenced, leaves the way open for Khajoggi’s family to pardon the convicts.
Within the next 30 days, the Saudi judiciary will transfer the death penalty file to the court of appeals who will then either tighten or alleviate the sentences. That means culprits have a serious chance to get away with their crime.
So even if the sentence is not commuted by the court of appeals, we may expect Salah Khajoggi, the slain’s son, to tweet a “pardon,” in the same way that he tweeted praise for the Saudi judiciary, and celebrated the preliminary verdicts as soon as the prosecution announced them.
Some legal experts consider the prosecution’s statement contradictory and ambiguous. Many were surprised that it was issued by the prosecution in the first place, instead of the court.
Timing of the hearings’ results and court verdicts has also made many skeptical. The acquittal of Consul Muhammad al-Otaiby comes only two weeks after the US State Department banned the man from entering American territory.
Was the move meant to anticipate the deadline set by the US congress Intelligence Committee for an annoucement on the possible implication of the Saudi crown prince in the murder? Will the White House believe the hearings’ results at a time when the CIA deputy director Gina Haspel, who listened to the recordings of Khajoggi’s murder, described it as a pre-meditated crime?
Saud al-Qahtani’s cases
The most controversial name in the case is Saud al-Qahtani. According to the prosecution, Qahtani was released due to insufficient evidence. A possible royal pardon, then, may see him return to normal life.
Al-Qahtani’s exoneration caused the greatest disappointment. Saudis took to Twitter to express their ire at the acquittal. After all, al-Qahtani has always used that very social media platform to disseminate racism, tribalism and hatred, waging a virtual war with Qatar, and denigrating, harassing, and torturing prisoners of conscience. Are his subordinates aware that his acquittal means some of them will have to take the bait, even if all the accused in Khashogji’s murder will go home to their families?
During a court hearing, detained women attempted to scream and explain what they were going through. But that all slowed down the whole process, leaving us with the big question: Who will benefit from al-Qahtani’s acquittal?
The cover-up of Khashoggi’s case goes to show that the state does not consider it a crime. Proponents of Saud al-Qahtani’s guilt, who exonerated the crown prince, are now wondering: Was al-Qahtany really left to his own devices, as he formerly stated in a tweet?