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Saudi Arabia sentences five to death for Jamal Khashoggi killing

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — A court in Saudi Arabia on Monday sentenced five people to death for the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last year by a team of Saudi agents.

Saudi Arabia's state-run Al-Ekhbariya TV channel reported that three others were sentenced to prison. All can appeal the verdicts.

The Saudi crown prince drew international condemnation for the killing because several Saudi agents involved worked directly for him. The kingdom denies that Prince Mohammed bin Salman had any involvement in or knowledge of the operation. He is the kingdom's de facto ruler.

Khashoggi was a U.S. resident and harsh critic of bin Salman.

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Jamal Khashoggi in undated photo

State TV also reported the Saudi attorney general's investigation showed that the crown prince's former top adviser, Saud al-Qahtani, had no proven involvement in the killing. Al-Qahtani, however, has been sanctioned by the United States for his alleged role in the operation.

The court also ruled that the Saudi consul-general in Istanbul at the time, Mohammed al-Otaibi, was not guilty. He was released from prison after the verdicts were announced, according to state TV.

After holding nine sessions, the trial concluded there was no previous intent by those found guilty to murder, according to state TV.

Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman attends the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Mecca
Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman attending the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Mecca, Saudi Arabia on May 30, 2019. Handout . / REUTERS

The trials of the accused were carried out in near total secrecy, though a handful of diplomats, including from Turkey, as well as members of Khashoggi's family were allowed to attend the sessions.

The verdicts were read by Shaalan al-Shaalan, a spokesperson from the attorney general's office, and broadcast on state TV. No names were given for those found guilty. The attorney general's office also said it is looking into the verdicts, which were issued by Riyadh's criminal court, to see whether to move ahead in the appellate court. 

The publisher of the Washington Post, where Khashoggi wrote a column on foreign affairs, issued a statement calling the trial "a sham." "Those ultimately responsible, at the highest level of the Saudi government, continue to escape responsibility for the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi," Fred Ryan said. 

The three suspects in the case who face prison time were sentenced to a total of 24 years, but no individual breakdown for each person was given. Another three who were on trial were released after being found not guilty, and several others who were investigated were also released. 

A senior administration official told CBS News the sentencing was "an important step in holding those responsible for this terrible crime accountable, and we encourage Saudi Arabia to continue with a fair and transparent judicial process."

The killing had shocked the world and drawn condemnation from the international community, including the United Nations. 

Khashoggi had walked into his country's consulate in Istanbul one morning in October 2018 to collect documents that would allow him to wed his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, who waited for him outside. He never walked out. His body was reportedly dismembered and taken from the building. His remains haven't been found.

Agnes Callamard, a U.N. special rapporteur who authored an inquiry into Khashoggi's killing, later said the search for justice must not be left to the Saudi judicial system, which is "so vulnerable to political interference."

Callamard reacted to the verdicts announced from Riyadh by tweeting that "the travesty of investigation, prosecution and justice continues"in Saudi Arabia.

Paris-based media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders said justice was "trampled" on, reports Agence France Presse. 

The group's secretary general, Christophe Deloire, tweeted that the sentences "can be interpreted as a means to permanently silence the suspects, a way to prevent them from speaking to better cover up the truth."

Becaus the trial was held behind closed doors, it "did not respect international standards of justice," he said, adding, "Justice has been trampled on. The opacity of the procedure and the concealment of evidence does not allow us to get an idea" of why several others were convicted or acquitted. We still expect a full accounting."

President Trump condemned the killing, and his administration sanctioned 17 Saudis suspected of being involved, though not the crown prince. Mr. Trump, however, has steadfastly resisted calls by members of his own party for a tougher response and has defended maintaining good relations with Saudi Arabia, framing its importance as a major buyer of U.S. military equipment and weapons and saying that creates American jobs.

Meanwhile, numerous critics of the Saudi crown prince remain imprisoned and face trial for their acts of dissent.

Khashoggi's killing has tarnished the Saudi crown prince's reputation internationally though he is still hugely popular at home. 

Saudi Arabia has over the past months launched efforts to open up the notoriously closed-off country to tourists and travelers from around the world as part of a push by the crown prince to change perceptions of the kingdom.

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