Saudi prosecutor seeks death sentences as Khashoggi murder trial opens





Riyadh (AFP) - Saudi prosecutors sought the death penalty for five of 11 defendants charged with the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as their high-profile trial opened in Riyadh on Thursday.

The prosecution also said it was awaiting a response to two formal letters requesting evidence from Turkey, where Khashoggi was murdered inside the kingdom's Istanbul consulate on October 2 in a case that shocked the world.

All 11 accused were present with their lawyers at the first session of the trial, it said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency, without revealing their names or their alleged roles in the crime.

"The public prosecutor... is seeking capital punishment for five of the defendants for their direct involvement in the murder," the statement said.

Five top Saudi officials -- including royal court insider Saud al-Qahtani -- have been sacked over Khashoggi's murder, but authorities have not said if they were among those charged.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor, was murdered in what Riyadh called a "rogue" operation, tipping the kingdom into one of its worst diplomatic crises and tarnishing the reputation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The 59-year-old Saudi insider-turned-critic was strangled and his body cut into pieces by a team of 15 Saudis sent to Istanbul for the killing, according to Turkish officials.

Turkish media reports suggested his remains, which have never been found, were dissolved in acid.

- Calls for credible probe -

Thursday's session was attended by the kingdom's Human Rights Commission, SPA said, but like other Saudi trials it was closed to the public and media.

The United Nations and human rights groups have called for an independent investigation into Khashoggi's killing.

"Given the possible involvement of Saudi authorities in Khashoggi's murder and the lack of independence of Saudi Arabia's criminal justice system, the impartiality of any investigation and trial would be in question," Samah Hadid, a Middle East director at Amnesty International, told AFP on Thursday.

"This is why a UN-led and independent investigation is needed into the murder."

The defence team on Thursday requested a copy of the charge sheet and a timeframe within which to review the charges. The prosecution agreed to both requests while its investigation continues, SPA said.

No date has been set for the next hearing and it was unclear how long the trial would last.

- High-level involvement -

The Khashoggi murder rattled the world at a time when Saudi Arabia and its de facto leader, Prince Mohammed, were pushing an aggressive public relations campaign to rebrand the ultraconservative kingdom as a modern state.

Among Prince Mohammed's strongest allies is US President Donald Trump, who now faces increasing pressure to approve measures against Saudi Arabia.

The US Central Intelligence Agency has reportedly concluded that Prince Mohammed very likely ordered Khashoggi's murder. A bipartisan resolution approved by the US Senate last month also held the crown prince responsible for the killing.

But in November the Saudi attorney general ruled out any involvement by the young crown prince.

It was unclear whether Qahtani and Ahmad al-Assiri, two senior aides to Prince Mohammed initially implicated in Khashoggi's murder, were among those on trial.

Saudi officials said in November that Qahtani -- who has not spoken publicly since then -- was banned from travel pending the investigation but authorities have refused to disclose his whereabouts.

"It is clear that elements from high levels of the Saudi state were involved in Khashoggi's murder," H.A. Hellyer, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told AFP.

"There is an immense amount of international interest in this trial, but also a lot of suspicion about whether those ultimately responsible for the crime will be held to account."

There was no immediate reaction to Thursday's trial from Ankara, which has sought the extradition of the suspects in Saudi custody to stand trial in Turkey.

But Riyadh has repeatedly rebuffed its requests.

The Khashoggi affair has given rare leverage to the kingdom's rivals -- not only Turkey and its ally Qatar, with which Saudi Arabia broke off all relations 18 months ago, but also arch rival Iran.

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