The trial for the men accused of murdering Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi began Thursday in Saudi Arabia, with prosecutors confirming they will seek the death penalty for at least five of 11 people charged in the assassination.
Khashoggi’s gruesome murder captured international attention, but the trial for his killing is expected to largely happen outside the public view and follow the official story already put forward by the Saudi government — that its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), had nothing to do with Khashoggi’s assassination.
Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post who’d been critical of the Saudi government, was killed October 2 in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. The CIA has since concluded that MBS ordered the killing, a finding that’s been echoed by prominent members of the US Congress and backed up by other Western and Turkish intelligence agencies.
That’s in direct contradiction to the Saudi government’s story. The kingdom has changed its narrative a few times since Khashoggi’s death, first saying the journalist left the consulate through a back entrance, then claiming he was accidentally killed during a fistfight gone awry. The Saudi prosecutors later admitted the murder was premeditated but continued to put distance between the journalist’s death and any involvement by MBS.
No evidence pointing to MBS’s complicity is likely to come out in the trial of these suspects. The Thursday hearing was closed to the public; as the Guardian points out, this is standard practice in Saudi Arabia.
What’s more, it’s still a bit murky exactly who is being charged for what in Khashoggi’s death. The statement from Saudi prosecutors about the 11 suspects didn’t reveal any names or details. As the New York Times notes, it’s not even really clear why prosecutors are pursuing the death penalty for some of the suspects in the case but not for others.
According to Turkish officials, at least 15 Saudis flew to Istanbul ahead of Khashoggi’s murder, and many had ties to Saudi security services. Two officials with ties to MBS — adviser Saud al-Qahtani and deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri — were fired after Khashoggi’s death and are under investigation.
All told, Saudi Arabia detained 21 people for Khashoggi’s death and fired at least five people as of November. Prosecutors said Thursday that they will continue to investigate those connected to the case.
Turkey, meanwhile, has accused Saudi Arabia of not sharing any information about the suspects with its government, reports Al Jazeera — another sign of how Khashoggi’s death has heightened tensions between Istanbul and Riyadh.
Turkish officials have slowly, and pretty consistently, leaked gory details about Khashoggi’s murder over the past weeks, including, most recently, a video purporting to show a team of Saudi assassins carrying a black bag believed to hold the journalist’s dismembered body parts.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has denounced Saudi Arabia for its involvement in Khashoggi’s death and has asked that the perpetrators face punishment in Istanbul rather than Riyadh. Saudi Arabia, of course, didn’t go for this.
Saudi prosecutors also took a shot at Turkey, saying in their statement that they’ve requested additional evidence from Turkish officials but it hasn’t been turned over yet.
The world will watch Khashoggi’s trial. But what will come of it?
The world is still reeling from Khashoggi’s assassination and MBS’s alleged role in his murder.
The Trump administration had gone all-in on MBS and the Saudi partnership and has been reluctant to acknowledge MBS’s role in Khashoggi’s death. The US placed sanctions on 17 Saudi officials, but the administration has otherwise defended the country and its de facto ruler. This is despite pressure from Congress, including a stunning rebuke from the US Senate that called on the White House to curtail its support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
A government shutdown and the arrival of a new Congress has pushed Saudi Arabia off the agenda for now, but lawmakers — particularly House Democrats — are likely to revisit the war in Yemen and financial ties between Trump and the Saudis in the new year.
Saudi Arabia is most likely eager to move past Khashoggi’s death. But a trial might end up putting more pressure on the kingdom, not less — especially if there are questions about the application of justice and the rule of law under MBS.
Khashoggi’s murder managed to destroy the image of MBS as a modernist reformer, instead revealing his role in the brutal war in Yemen, his crackdown on free speech, and his aggressive consolidation of power in the kingdom.
“The eyes of the world have been lifted to the kind of character Mohammed bin Salman is shaping up to be,” Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Middle East fellow at the Baker Institute, told me last month.
MBS won’t be on trial in Khashoggi’s murder — at least not in the literal sense. But the crown prince, with the world watching, might not escape scrutiny entirely.