JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia/ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Mourners paid their respects on Friday to the family of Jamal Khashoggi, the prominent Saudi writer murdered by agents of his own government, after the authorities said they had identified the culprits and cleared the crown prince of any involvement.
Two of Khashoggi’s brothers and one of his sons received a few hundred men in the coastal city of Jeddah a day after the Saudi public prosecutor said it would seek the death penalty for five unnamed suspects in the killing inside the country’s Istanbul consulate on Oct. 2.
Earlier on Friday, tens of thousands of worshippers prayed for the deceased in Mecca and Medina, Khashoggi’s hometown, though the imams did not name him.
In rainy Istanbul, mourners listened to Koranic recitations. Friends eulogized the 59-year-old royal insider-turned-critic, and politicians who knew him denounced Riyadh’s investigation as biased.
Saudi authorities say the operation that led to Khashoggi’s death was meant to repatriate him alive, but their shifting accounts - including initial denials - have been met with scepticism and furor abroad.
Two officials allegedly behind the plan are close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Turkey and some Western allies, including U.S. President Donald Trump, have said ultimate responsibility lies with Prince Mohammed as the country’s de facto ruler. Riyadh says he had nothing to do with the murder.
In an unusual measure against an important security and economic partner, the U.S. Treasury on Thursday imposed economic sanctions on 17 Saudis, including Saud al-Qahtani, the crown prince’s former top adviser.
The decision to hold prayer services in the absence of a body suggests the family does not expect it to be recovered. Despite entreaties, Saudi authorities have not revealed its whereabouts, saying only that it was dismembered and removed from the consulate.
Islamic tradition places great importance on the proper handling of the dead, mandating quick burial, so the mistreatment of the body is particularly disturbing.
Khashoggi’s son, Salah, told CNN last week that he wanted to bury his father in Medina with the rest of the family, saying “We just need to make sure that he rests in peace.”
Salah had previously met the king and crown prince in Riyadh to receive condolences, then departed for Washington after a travel ban was lifted but has since returned.
The reception attracted a who’s who of the country’s relatively cosmopolitan Hejaz region, including veteran Saudi journalists and former senior officials who had worked with Khashoggi. There were several businessmen - like Saleh Kamel and his sons - who had been detained in a corruption purge last year ordered by Prince Mohammed.
Senior U.S. and British diplomats attended. A senior cleric with ministerial rank also came, but no top royals appeared.
Incense filled the hall as mourners paid their respects to the family with a few words and a hand on the shoulder or a hug. A relative recited a Koranic verse saying, “Don’t think of those killed in God’s service as dead, for they are alive and find sustenance in the presence of the Lord.”
Sipping small cups of Arabic coffee, some chatted about the scandal that has engulfed Saudi Arabia for the past six weeks.
“It has turned from a crime into a political matter,” one said. Another just kept repeating the word, “Unbelievable.”
Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancée, who had waited outside the consulate for hours on the day he was killed, on Thursday tweeted a selfie of him, writing: “Dear Jamal.. rest in peace. We will meet in heaven inshallah (God willing)..!”
The pair had met at a conference in Istanbul in May and soon decided to wed. He had entered the consulate that day to obtain documents proving an earlier marriage had ended.
They purchased an apartment in Istanbul and Khashoggi was planning to live between there and Washington, where he moved 18 months earlier fearing reprisals for his views. He obtained U.S. residency and wrote for the Washington Post, becoming familiar to many American policymakers.
“I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice. To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison,” he wrote in September 2017, referring to intellectuals, activists and clerics arrested under Prince Mohammed.
His murder has provoked the biggest political crisis in a generation for Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter and a supporter of Washington’s plans to contain Iranian influence across the Middle East.
It has also tarnished the image of Prince Mohammed, who has pushed social and economic reforms while cracking down on dissent, upending the delicate balance inside the ruling family, and leading the country into messy conflicts in Yemen and Qatar.
Additional Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun, writing by Stephen Kalin, Editing by William Maclean