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France releases man who was held as possible suspect in Jamal Khashoggi murder

Jamal Khashoggi murder investigation
Jamal Khashoggi murder investigation 08:06

French police on Tuesday arrested a man that they believed to be a member of the hit squad that murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, but they got the wrong man. The Paris prosecutor's office confirmed to CBS News on Wednesday that the man detained the previous day was not, in fact, 33-year-old Khalid Alotaibi, who is wanted by Turkey to face justice over the killing that took place at Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul. 

A Saudi official told Reuters on Tuesday that the French police had detained the wrong man, calling it a case of mistaken identity and demanding his immediate release. French officials confirmed that was the case less than 24 hours later. 

The man was detained by border police on the basis of the Turkish arrest warrant as he was about to board a flight to Riyadh from Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport, judicial and airport sources told AFP.  

Alotaibi is one of 26 Saudis charged in absentia by Turkey over the killing in a trial that got underway in October 2020. If he is ever detained and convicted, he could face life imprisonment.

Two of the 26 being tried in absentia in Turkey are former aides to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. No Saudi official has ever faced justice in person in Turkey for the killing.

Alotaibi is also one of 17 people that the U.S. Treasury designated for sanctions in 2018 over their alleged role in the murder.

Vigil for Khashoggi at Saudi Consulate in Istanbul
People take part in a candlelight vigil to remember journalist Jamal Khashoggi outside the Saudi Arabia consulate on October 25, 2018 in Istanbul, Turkey.  Getty Images

Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi who lived in self-exile in the United States and wrote for The Washington Post, entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, to file paperwork to marry his Turkish fiancée.

According to U.S. and Turkish officials, a waiting Saudi hit squad strangled him and dismembered his body, which has never been found. The gruesome murder sparked international outrage that continues to reverberate, with Western intelligence agencies accusing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of authorizing the killing.

After a closed-door trial last year, a Saudi court sentenced eight people to jail in the case, but their identities were not released. Khashoggi's fiancée called the ruling "a complete mockery of justice."

Tuesday's arrest of Alotaibi comes only days after French President Emmanuel Macron defended his decision to include Saudi Arabia in a tour of Gulf states, saying the visit did not mean that he had "forgotten" about the Khashoggi case.

After meeting with the Saudi crown prince, Macron said he had raised the question of human rights "without any taboo," and said he hoped to see progress over the coming weeks and months.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh on October 23, 2018.  FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said the order to murder Khashoggi came from "the highest levels" of the Saudi government, and the case led to tensions between the two countries.

But Erdogan has never directly blamed the Crown Prince, and there have been signs of a thaw between Turkey and Saudi Arabia in recent months, with the Turkish foreign minister visiting Riyadh earlier this year in a bid to mend ties.

There have also been signs of a thaw between Turkey and Saudi Arabia's top ally, the United Arab Emirates, with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed visiting Turkey last month.

On the third anniversary of the killing, Khashoggi's fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, who was waiting outside the consulate while the murder took place, accused the U.S. of failing to hold Saudi Arabia accountable.

Cengiz had welcomed reports of Alotaibi's possible arrest on Tuesday, tweeting that France "should try him for his crime, or extradite him to a country able and willing to genuinely investigate and prosecute him as well as the person who gave the order to murder Jamal." 

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