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5 People Sentenced To Death In Saudi Arabia For Killing Of Journalist Jamal Khashoggi


Saudi Arabia has sentenced five people to death for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi's death last year inside a Saudi consulate in Istanbul caused international outcry. Saudi officials have consistently claimed his death was a mistake carried out by rogue agents, but other investigations, including one by the CIA and another one by the U.N., found evidence that the killing was a carefully premeditated execution. The Saudi court, whose proceedings were mostly conducted in secret, also sent in several other men to prison but exonerated two senior aides to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. We're joined now by Ben Hubbard of The New York Times. Welcome.

BEN HUBBARD: Thank you.

CHANG: Do we have reasons to doubt the integrity of this particular verdict? What's your sense?

HUBBARD: Well, there's a lot of people, I think, outside of Saudi Arabia who definitely are raising a lot of questions. They're - just the fact that it was held in secret there - you know, they did let some local media in but no international media. So, you know, there's just not a lot going on here in terms of international standards that would make people feel very confident that it was a legitimate process truly trying to ascertain who was responsible for this killing and how they should be punished.

CHANG: If that's the case, what purpose do you think this verdict serves for the Saudi kingdom?

HUBBARD: Well, you know, the Saudis are very interested in putting this behind them. I think that they realize how much of a black mark this was. You know, the verdict as it came out today very much lined up with the Saudi narrative, which says that this was a very exceptional act. It was not preplanned. This was a decision that was made sort of in the heat of the moment by the Saudi agents who were on the ground and who had not been dispatched to kill and had not been authorized to kill.

CHANG: Right. And how does that narrative differ with the narratives emerging out of these other investigations - investigations by the CIA, by Turkey, by the U.N.?

HUBBARD: We do know quite a lot about what happened, and we know that there were 15 agents from Saudi Arabia who flew in in the hours before Mr. Khashoggi showed up to receive his paperwork. They spent time in the consulate preparing. They had entire conversations before he arrived about his body, about the size of his body and whether or not pieces of it would fit in suitcases. One of the agents referred to him as a sacrificial animal when he arrived at the consulate. Then there's sort of all the efforts that the Saudis put in afterwards to try to cover up the crime. They brought in forensic and chemical experts to more or less forensically cleanse the crime scene - I mean, huge, huge amounts of effort to keep the Turks from sort of figuring out exactly what happened and who did what.

CHANG: And you're reminding us that at least a team of 15 Saudis were flown in to Istanbul who were involved in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. What do we know about whether all of those people have been held to account? We know that five people have been sentenced to death. We don't know their identities. We know that more men have been sentenced to prison, but we don't know if the 15 Saudi agents are these people who now face penalties.

HUBBARD: No. I mean, we have good reason to believe that - there were 11 who were on trial. We have good reason to believe that these 11 were among the 15 who were in Istanbul. I don't think we know exactly which 11 they were.

CHANG: Right.

HUBBARD: And, you know, we don't know which people did what. I mean, they - the Saudis did say that the five who were given sentences today were the ones who were actually involved in the killing, whereas the three who are going to prison were involved in covering up the crime and violating other laws. But other than that, we have no detail on exactly who these people are or what exact role they played in this killing.

CHANG: I want to read you something the U.N. investigator Agnes Callamard wrote today. She wrote, bottom line, the hitmen are guilty, sentenced to death. The masterminds not only walk free. They have barely been touched by the investigation and the trial. That is the antithesis of justice. It is a mockery. Do you think that fairly sums up the vast majority of international reaction to this verdict today?

HUBBARD: Well, I think it sums up a lot of the sentiment in the West. In the United States, we've seen, you know, a lot of anger from various parts of the U.S. government with, you know, the exception of the White House. Elsewhere in the world, I think there are plenty of other countries that do business with Saudi Arabia that are less concerned about, you know, pushing it on human rights. You know, the Russians don't probably care so much, and the Chinese and plenty of other people.

CHANG: So is this where the inquiry ends inside the Saudi justice system? I mean, is this the final word from the kingdom?

HUBBARD: Well, I don't think it's the end of the Saudi judicial process. This sentence - it was referred to as a preliminary rulings. And so these can be appealed, and then they can later go to the high court before there are any executions. They actually have to be approved by the king. And so, you know, just the Saudi legal process could go on for quite a long time.

CHANG: OK - for these particular individuals facing punishment now. But with respect to additional individuals who have yet to be held to account, could there be further repercussions?

HUBBARD: It doesn't appear that there's any further investigation going on in Saudi Arabia. I mean, I would be very surprised if the kingdom came out and said, we have new information against new people. And at this point, I don't think there's a lot to expect from other external processes either. I mean, the U.N. rapporteur who you quoted earlier...


HUBBARD: She had called for an international investigation. Plenty of other people have. There's just no - I haven't really seen any indication that these kinds of calls are gaining any momentum.

CHANG: OK. Ben Hubbard of The New York Times, thank you very much for joining us today.

HUBBARD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.