Saudi Arabia will seek the death penalty against five men suspected of killing journalist Jamal Khashoggi, its top prosecutor said yesterday, while the United States slapped sanctions on 17 Saudi officials in the toughest action it has taken against the kingdom since the slaying.
The Saudi moves failed to appease Turkey, which has put increasing pressure on its regional rival since Khashoggi was killed in Istanbul last month, but they could be enough for some of Saudi Arabia's Western allies to move on and press for key demands, such as an end to the war in Yemen.
The prosecutor's announcement sought to quiet the global outcry over Khashoggi's death and distance the killers and their operation from the kingdom's leadership, primarily Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Officials and analysts say an operation of this kind could not have happened without the prince's knowledge.
Pressed by Western journalists in Riyadh yesterday, Saudi Arabia's top diplomat said the crown prince had "absolutely" nothing to do with the slaying of the Washington Post columnist, who was sharply critical of the heir to the throne.
The Saudi investigation pointed the finger at some members of the crown prince's inner circle but stopped short of accusing them of ordering the writer's death. Those closest to the prince are instead accused of ordering Khashoggi's forced return in an operation at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul that the Saudis allege went awry.
In a news conference, Sheikh Shalan al-Shalan, the Deputy Attorney General, said the killing was ordered by an individual whom he did not identify but said was responsible for negotiating Khashoggi's return back to Saudi Arabia from Turkey. The individual was part of a 15-man team that was made up of negotiators, intelligence officers and logistics officials.
That team was formed by Saud al-Qahtani, who was one of the crown prince's closest aides, and former deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri, the prosecutor said. Both men were close to the crown prince and fired from their posts after the killing.
They deemed Khashoggi's presence abroad as "a threat to national security", the prosecutor said.
Khashoggi had gone for a scheduled visit to the consulate on October 2 to obtain documents for his upcoming marriage while his Turkish fiancee waited outside.
Al-Shalan said that on that morning, the leader of the negotiating team that confronted Khashoggi inside the consulate saw that he would not be able to force him to return, "so he decided to kill him in the moment". This appears to contradict a previous Saudi statement quoting Turkish intelligence as saying the killing had been premeditated - one of several shifting narratives about the case that have come from the kingdom.
The Saudi investigators stopped short of accusing al-Assiri or al-Qahtani of ordering Khashoggi's killing, bolstering previous Saudi assertions it was carried out by rogue agents who overstepped their authority.
The prosecutor said the agents sent in Istanbul drugged and killed the writer in the consulate before dismembering the body and giving it to an unidentified local collaborator for disposal. The body has not been found.
Chief prosecutor Saud Al-Mojeb said that of the 21 people in custody, 11 have been indicted and referred to trial, adding that he would seek the death penalty against five of the suspects. It's not unusual for a Saudi prosecutor to seek the death penalty before a trial.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the slaying was premeditated and the orders came from "the highest levels of the Saudi Government", without specifying exactly who was responsible.
Turkey has called for an international investigation into the killing. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu yesterday said that some of the latest Saudi statements about the killing were not "satisfactory".
"This is not something that happens instantaneously," he said. "People and tools were brought to dismember the body."
Turkey's prosecutor said last month that Khashoggi was strangled or suffocated as soon as he entered the consulate, in line with "premeditated plans".
Turkish authorities have also demanded that the Saudis reveal the whereabouts of Khashoggi's remains, which according to some media reports were dissolved in acid and poured down drains and into a garden well.
In Washington, the US Treasury Department announced economic sanctions on 17 Saudi officials whom it said were responsible for or complicit in the killing. Among those targeted for sanctions were al-Qahtani and Mohammed al-Otaibi, the diplomat in charge of the consulate. Also named was Maher Mutreb, who was part of the crown prince's entourage on trips abroad.
The sanctions freeze any assets the 17 may have in the US and prohibit any Americans from doing business with them.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, appearing at a news conference after the prosecutor spoke, told reporters that the crown prince had nothing to do with the killing.
Al-Jubeir said the kingdom is investigating and holding those responsible to account "to make sure this doesn't happen again".
Simon Henderson, who has written extensively on the crown prince for the Washington Institute, said that despite the horrific killing, the West still must deal with Saudi Arabia because of its strategic position in terms of oil exports and the crucial role that plays in the stability of the world economy. Of the crown prince, he said "we have to maintain a working relationship with him".