Saudi Arabia’s top prosecutor is recommending the death penalty for five suspects charged with ordering and carrying out the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, in a move that appears designed to protect the country’s powerful crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.
A spokesman for Saudi Al-Mojeb told journalists in a rare press conference in Riyadh on Thursday that Khashoggi’s killers had set in motion plans for the killing on 29 September, three days before he was killed inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. Prince Mohammed was not implicated in the murder, he added.
The announcement follows growing international outcry over the killing of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of the Saudi rulers who was last seen entering the consulate on 2 October to obtain paperwork for his marriage.
Khashoggi died after being drugged and then dismembered, a spokesman for the public prosecutor’s office said, in the first Saudi confirmation of how he was killed.
The deputy chief of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence, General Ahmed al-Assiri, gave the order to repatriate Khashoggi – and “the head of the negotiating team” that flew to the Istanbul consulate had ordered his murder, the spokesman said.
After repeated denials, Saudi Arabia finally admitted in mid-October that Khashoggi had been murdered at the compound, but blamed it on a “rogue” operation.
An official statement published by state news agency SPA said that a total of 21 individuals were in custody in connection with the killing, 11 of whom have been indicted with investigations to continue into the others.
On Wednesday Turkey called for an international investigation into the murder. Ankara has already shared voice recordings linked to the murder with a number of countries including Saudi Arabia, the United States and its Western allies.
Khashoggi’s killing has plunged the world’s top oil exporter into its worst diplomatic crisis since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, in which most of the hijackers were identified as Saudi nationals.
After first insisting Khashoggi left the consulate unharmed, Saudi authorities said he was killed in an argument that degenerated into a brawl before finally accepting what Turkey had said virtually from the start – that he was killed in a premeditated hit.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said the order to murder Khashoggi came from “the highest levels” of the Saudi government.
The global fallout over the murder has tainted the image of 33-year-old Prince Mohammed – the de facto ruler and heir apparent – despite persistent Saudi denials that he was involved.
Khashoggi’s murder has also led to increased scrutiny of Saudi Arabia’s role in the Yemen war, which has pushed the impoverished country to the brink of famine.
The journalist went into self-imposed exile in the United States in 2017 after falling out with Prince Mohammed.