ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Supporters of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi called for justice a year after his death and a U.N. investigator said Saud al-Qahtani, a key adviser to the kingdom’s crown prince, should be put in the dock.
Eleven Saudi officials are on trial in Riyadh for the killing of Khashoggi, a former royal insider turned critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which took place inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 2018.
The trial is being held behind closed doors but six sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters more than one of the defendants had mentioned Qahtani’s name.
Asked to comment, U.N. rapporteur for extrajudicial executions Agnes Callamard said she could not confirm their accounts but that if people were prepared to name him in court, she welcomed it.
“If he appears to become or to be a person of interest as per the proceeding of the trial, then of course the next logical step must be to bring him in the trial,” she said, noting that his name had already been mentioned by the Saudi prosecutor.
“While I will welcome calling him as a key witness, I think that is still very far from where he should be, which is behind the dock as one of the accused,” Callamard told Reuters ahead of a ceremony just yards from the consulate door which Khashoggi entered shortly after 1 pm on Oct. 2 last year.
He was dead within minutes, Turkish officials say.
The Saudi public prosecutor said last November that Qahtani had discussed Khashoggi’s activities before he entered the Saudi consulate with the team which went on to kill him.
The prosecutor said Qahtani acted in coordination with deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Asiri, who he said had ordered Khashoggi’s repatriation from Turkey and that the lead negotiator on the ground then decided to kill him.
Both men have been dismissed but while Asiri is on trial, Qahtani is not.
The government communications office did not respond to a request for comment. Reuters has been unable to reach the public prosecutor or Qahtani.
“He was mentioned by the Saudi prosecutor, who however did not indict him, did not charge him, even though by his own words the prosecutor acknowledged that Saud al-Qahtani had called on the team to bring back Mr Khashoggi because he was a national security threat,” Callamard said.
“So just for that reason alone he should have been charged.”
Two of the sources said that for Qahtani’s name to be mentioned in court would likely have to have been approved by senior authorities in the kingdom.
Diplomatic sources have said that Western allies want Riyadh to give up Qahtani in order to satisfy demands for accountability. It was unclear whether the defendants’ statements about him went further than what has already been officially announced.
One of the six sources with knowledge of the court proceedings who spoke recently to Reuters said several defendants had confessed to their role and offered “gruesome details”.
“They told the court they met with Qahtani the night before going to Istanbul,” said the source, who like the others requested anonymity to discuss the case.
In January, six sources with links to the royal court told Reuters Qahtani continued to wield influence in the crown prince’s inner circle while keeping a low profile.
The murder of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, sparked Saudi Arabia’s worst political crisis in a generation and threatened ties with close allies.
Saudi media said the court has convened eight sessions since the trial began in January, during which the defendants confessed and the prosecutor requested the death penalty for five of them.
There is no indication that Qahtani has appeared.
On Wednesday, Callamard joined Amazon.com Inc Chief Executive and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, as well as friends and supporters of Khashoggi and rights activists, who pledged to keep fighting for justice.
“We will never give up on this,” said Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s representative in Turkey, who condemned what he called “the sham trial”.
He called for a U.N.-led investigation with the power to interview all suspects “whatever their level in government or position in power”.
In the Riyadh trial, the suspects’ lawyers have said they were duty-bound as state employees to follow orders, according to a June report by Callamard.
Two regional intelligence sources told Reuters previously that Qahtani oversaw Khashoggi’s killing by giving orders via Skype to a team of security and intelligence operatives.
The CIA and some Western governments suspect Prince Mohammed, known as MbS, ordered the murder. In an interview with CBS program “60 Minutes” broadcast on Sunday, he denied that and called the killing a mistake, but said he ultimately bears responsibility as de facto leader.
Asked specifically about Qahtani and Asiri, he said: “...once charges are proven against someone, regardless of their rank, it will be taken to court, no exception made.”
Qahtani’s current location and activities are unknown.
Callamard has called for senior officials including MbS and Qahtani to be investigated, and said an international criminal probe should replace the Saudi trial, which Riyadh rejects. She said the crown prince’s recent remarks are aimed at rehabilitating his image.
The Trump administration has pressed Riyadh to show “tangible progress” toward holding to account those behind the killing before the one-year mark, a senior administration official has said.
Reporting by Gulf newsroom; additional reporting by Yesim Dikmen; editing by Philippa Fletcher