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Khashoggi: Saudi Arabia says France arrested wrong man over murder

Kingdom's French embassy says man arrested in Paris has nothing to do with murder and should be freed immediately
Khashoggi, a Middle East Eye and Washington Post columnist, was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul after he tried to obtain paperwork for his marriage to his Turkish fiancee (AFP)

Saudi Arabia's embassy in France said on Tuesday that a man arrested in Paris over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi had nothing to do with the case and should be released immediately.

Investigators were seeking to confirm that the man carrying a passport in the name of Khaled Aedh al-Otaibi was indeed the suspect by the same name sought by Turkey and sanctioned by the US over the gruesome killing of Khashoggi in 2018.

The Saudi embassy in Paris issued a statement late on Tuesday saying the man arrested "has nothing to do with the case in question", and demanded his immediate release.

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A security source in Saudi Arabia told AFP that Khaled al-Otaibi was a very common name in the kingdom, and that the Otaibi the French thought they were holding was actually serving time in prison in Saudi Arabia along with "all the defendants in the case". 

Last year, a Saudi court jailed eight people for between seven and 20 years over the killing, but none of the defendants were named.

In her 2019 report for the United Nations into the killing, Agnes Callamard, a former UN investigator, named Otaibi as being part of a Saudi team that killed Khashoggi and dismembered his body before flying back to Saudi Arabia.

Callamard, now head of rights group Amnesty International, said more confirmation was required to prove that the man held in France is the same person identified in her report.

Extradition process

The man was detained by border police on Tuesday on an arrest warrant issued by Turkey, as he was about to board a flight to Riyadh from Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport. It was unclear how or when he had arrived in France.

Khaled Aedh al-Otaibi is one of 26 Saudis charged in absentia by Turkey over the killing, in a trial that got under way in October 2020. Two of the 26 being tried in absentia in Turkey are former aides to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Otaibi is also one of 17 people whom the US Treasury designated for sanctions in 2018 over their role in the murder. He is also under Canadian and British sanctions.

A source close to the case said that the Interpol Red Notice issued at Turkey's request came up as the traveller was passing through passport control.

Checks were still under way on Tuesday evening to ensure his identity is correct and that the arrest warrant applies to him, another source close to the case added, noting that his detention can last up to 48 hours. If confirmed as the suspected assassination team member, he will appear before French prosecutors.

The suspect would have the right to challenge extradition to Turkey. If he does, the French judiciary must decide whether to keep him in detention pending a formal Turkish extradition request, or free him on condition that he does not leave France.

It can typically take several weeks for a court to rule on whether to hand someone over to Turkey against their will.

Gruesome death

In September 2020, a Saudi court overturned five death sentences for Khashoggi's murder, issued after a closed-door trial in Saudi Arabia, sentencing the accused to 20 years in prison instead.

Khashoggi, a Middle East Eye and Washington Post columnist, was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul after he entered the premises on 2 October 2018 to obtain paperwork for his planned marriage to his Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz. His remains are yet to be found.

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In the aftermath of the killing, Middle East Eye obtained gruesome details of Khashoggi's death, including that Salah Muhammad al-Tubaigy, who has been identified as the head of forensic evidence in the Saudi general security department, began to cut up Khashoggi’s body on a table while he was still alive.

MEE also revealed the existence of Saudi Arabia's "Tiger Squad", a small unit specialising in silencing critics or opponents of the Saudi authorities, which operates under the guidance and supervision of Mohammed bin Salman. Otaibi was reportedly a member of the unit.

Shortly after US President Joe Biden was sworn into office, the US director of national intelligence released a report that concluded Mohammed bin Salman had approved the murder.

"We have always known, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman directed the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi," the report said. The crown prince denies the allegation.