Saudi crown prince shielded as death penalty sought over Khashoggi murder

Saudi Arabia says it will pursue the death penalty for five suspects charged with ordering and carrying out the killing of the Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, in the latest effort to distance the country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, from the grisly murder.The Saudi public prosecutor claimed that Saudi agents, including the head of forensics at the national intelligence service and members of Prince Mohammed’s security detail, had orders to abduct Khashoggi but decided to kill him when he resisted. The claim had been contradicted by an earlier Saudi finding that the murder was premeditated.Prince Mohammed was not implicated in the murder, a spokesman for the prosecutor said. Turkey has been formally asked to hand over audio tapes that allegedly capture the journalist’s death, he added.

The announcement follows growing international outcry over the killing of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist last seen entering the consulate on 2 October to obtain paperwork for his marriage.Almost seven weeks later, who ordered the exiled journalist’s death remains central to the scandal. Turkey believes that approval was given by the Prince Mohammed himself, and has continued its efforts to isolate the designated heir to the throne through a damning drip feed of evidence. On Thursday Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, described the Saudi statement as insufficient and insisted that the killing had been premeditated.

Saudi prosecutors say 21 of its officials have been indicted – including the 15-man hit team as well as crews alleged to have carried out reconnaissance before the murder.Ankara and Riyadh have been conducting a joint investigation into Khashoggi’s death. However, Turkish officials accuse their Saudi counterparts of stonewalling on the whereabouts of his body, and sending a forensic team disguised as investigators, who, rather than investigating the murder, attempted to scrub the consulate of Khashoggi’s DNA.Turkey says it holds audio recordings that prove Khashoggi was strangled, then dismembered within minutes of being lured into the consulate. A search for his remains in an Istanbul forest has been unsuccessful. However, biological evidence of the murder is understood to have been found at the nearby consul general’s residence.Investigators are working on the assumption that a second phase of the murder operation was carried out in the garage of the official residence, where Khashoggi’s body parts were dissolved in acid and poured down drains and into a garden well.

Turkey is yet to publicly table full transcripts of the audio tapes it says depict the killing, or reveal how the recordings were made. However, they have been widely shared with allied intelligence agencies and even played to a Saudi agent, according to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is leading the diplomatic offensive against Prince Mohammed.Erdoğan has said the order to murder Khashoggi came from “the highest levels” of the Saudi government. The former head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, has described Saudi claims that Prince Mohammed was unaware of the murder plot as a “blatant fiction”.The US, meanwhile, is attempting to shield Prince Mohammed from an investigation that poses the greatest threat to the kingdom since the 9/11 attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers who attacked the twin towers and Pentagon were Saudi citizens.

The US national security adviser, John Bolton, said earlier this week that nothing on the tapes incriminates the crown prince. Turkey has hinted that separate, as yet undisclosed material it is holding brings the killing to the doorstep of the royal court, from where Prince Mohammed’s most influential domestic aide, Saud al-Qahtani, has been forced to leave. Qahtani is accused of being the figure who organised the hit squad. The crown prince’s critics, and even some loyalists inside the kingdom, say it is inconceivable that such an operation could have been ordered without his authority.In the last 18 months of his life, which he had lived in exile mainly in Washington, Khashoggi had been an influential critic of some aspects of Prince Mohammed’s reform programme. An insider turned outsider, he had used the powerful platform of his column at the Washington Post to pen pointed critiques and political observations that had made him one of the Arab world’s most influential pundits.He had been an advocate of political Islam, which is viewed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as a subversive threat, and had defied overtures from al-Qahtani to return to Riyadh.