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Khashoggi case: US imposes sanctions on top MBS aides

Targeted individuals include senior adviser to the royal court and Saudi Arabia's consul general to Istanbul
Seventeen Saudi officials have been sanctioned under US's Magnitsky designations (AFP/ File photo)

The United States imposed sanctions on 17 Saudi officials, including Saud al-Qahtani, a confidant and senior adviser to powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in a first round of sanctions related to the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

The US Treasury Department blacklisted the individuals with Global Magnitsky designations on Thursday, which would block their assets in the US and ban US financial transactions with them.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the Saudi officials targeted by the sanctions were involved in the "abhorrent killing" of Khashoggi.

"These individuals who targeted and brutally killed a journalist who resided and worked in the United States must face consequences for their actions," Mnuchin said in a statement.

Saudi Arabia seeks death penalty for five Khashoggi murder suspects
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Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen and prominent journalist who was critical of the Saudi government, was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October after entering to retrieve personal documents.

In its statement, the US Treasury described Qahtani as "a senior official of the government of Saudi Arabia who was part of the planning and execution of the operation" that led to Khashoggi's killing.

The Saudi consul general to Istanbul, Mohammad al-Otaibi, who led early efforts by Saudi Arabia to convince journalists and critics that Khashoggi had left the consulate alive, is also on the list of individuals targeted by the US sanctions.

So is Maher Mutreb, an aide to bin Salman who has been spotted in the crown prince’s entourage during diplomatic trips abroad.

"The United States continues to diligently work to ascertain all of the facts and will hold accountable each of those we find responsible in order to achieve justice for Khashoggi’s fiancee, children, and the family he leaves behind," Mnuchin said.

He also called on Riyadh to take "appropriate steps" to end the targeting of dissidents and journalists.

Sanctions 'not enough'

The US sanctions come as Saudi Arabia announced on Thursday that it will be seeking the death penalty for five individuals accused of killing Khashoggi.

The Saudi indictments were welcomed by US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, who called them a "good first step".

"We regard the announcement that they made as a good first step. It's a step in the right direction," Nauert told reporters. "It is an initial investigation finding. It is important that those steps continue to be taken toward full accountability."

Still, the Saudi public prosector's office made no mention of bin Salman - commonly known as MBS - who, despite strong Saudi denials, is widely believed to have had knowledge of the plan to kill Khashoggi.

Critics say the involvement of senior officials who would normally report directly to MBS confirms that he ordered the assassination.

Qahtani has vast influence in the crown prince’s circle and once said he would never do anything without his boss's approval.

"Do you think I rebuke (others) on my own accord without direction? I am an employee and a loyal executor of the orders of my master, the king, and my master, his highness the crown prince," Qahtani tweeted last summer.

In an audio recording of Khashoggi's murder, Mutreb, who was part of a 15-member hit team sent to Turkey to kill Khashoggi and is also subject to Thursday's sanctions, told an aide of the crown prince to "tell your boss" after the killing, the New York Times reported earlier this week.

US intelligence officials told the newspaper they believe the "boss" in question was bin Salman.

Khashoggi's Washington Post editor, Karen Attiah, said on Thursday that US sanctions were "not enough".

"Sanctions will not fix this," Attiah tweeted, calling for an international investigation into what happened to the journalist.

The Washington Post’s publisher Fred Ryan said Washington and Riyadh want the world to take their word that the perpetrators of the murder have been punished, while important questions about the crime remain unanswered.

"From the start, the Saudi 'investigation' has been an effort to shield those ultimately responsible for this heinous crime when there is every reason to believe that it was authorized at the highest levels of the Saudi government," Ryan said in a statement.

He called on the US government to back an independent probe into the killing of Khashoggi. 

US under pressure to hold Saudis accountable

Saudi Arabia has so far presented various contradictory versions of the events that led to Khashoggi’s death.

Officials from the kingdom first rejected the now-validated claim that Khashoggi never left the consulate alive. It wasn’t until 17 days after the crime that Riyadh admitted the journalist was indeed killed inside the building.

Saudi officials then said Khashoggi was killed during an unauthorised interrogation that went wrong, and only later acknowledged that the murder was premeditated.

Saudi-US relations have been rocked amid the crisis over Khashoggi's killing, as politicians from both major US parties quickly denounced Saudi Arabia and called for Washington to rethink its relationship with Riyadh altogether.

Leading members on the US Senate's Foreign Affairs Committee triggered the Magnitsky Act in relation to Khashoggi’s case last month.

Under the human rights act, which was used against Russian nationals involved in serious crimes, Donald Trump was given 120 days to issue a report on the findings and impose appropriate measures.

The Trump White House, meanwhile, has approached the crisis cautiously. While branding the murder and subsequent attempt to hide it “the worst cover up ever”, the US president has repeatedly highlighted the importance of Washington’s economic ties with Riyadh, including billions of dollars worth of arms deals.

Trump has also said that it is important for him to know that bin Salman was involved in the murder.

I don’t think there’s any question that (MBS) directed it, knew it

- Bob Corker, outgoing Senate Foreign Affairs Committee chairman

Earlier this week, US National Security Adviser John Bolton said there was no evidence to tie the Saudi crown prince to the crime.

That has been disputed by several US politicians.

Republican Senator Bob Corker, the outgoing Senate Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, told The Hill the intelligence “points to” MBS. "I don’t think there’s any question that he directed it, knew it."

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham also expressed scepticism about Bolton's comment.

“It’s pretty hard for me to believe that 15 people just on their own fly to Turkey and chop somebody up in a consulate and never tell anybody in Saudi Arabia about it,” Graham said, as reported by The Hill.

“I’d be shocked if that turns out to be true.”

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