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Mohammed bin Salman's aide 'briefed Khashoggi murder team': Saudi prosecutor

Prosecutor says now-sacked advisor to crown prince described journalist as a 'threat to national security', as five face death penalty over killing
Prosecutor Shalaan al-Shalaan addresses journalists in Riyadh on Thursday (AFP)

One of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's closest aides met the leaders of the team that murdered Jamal Khashoggi and told them that the journalist was a threat to national security, a spokesperson for Saudi Arabia's public prosecutor said on Thursday.

Shalaan al-Shalaan, deputy public prosecutor and spokesperson, told journalists that Saud al-Qahtani, bin Salman's former top aide who was dismissed in the aftermath of the killing, had met with the suspected leader of the team, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, and others to brief them about Khashoggi before the operation.

According to Shalaan, the 15-man team had planned to negotiate with Khashoggi, a Middle East Eye and Washington Post columnist who had been living in exile in the US, with the intention of bringing him back to Saudi Arabia.

But leaders of the team also made plans to kill him if negotiations failed, including arranging for a forensics expert to join the mission to remove evidence from the scene.

"The former advisor [Qahtani] met with the leader of the mission and the negotiation team; to share with them information relevant to the mission based on his specialisation in media," Shalaan said in a statement read out to the press.

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"The former advisor expressed his belief that the victim was coopted by organisations and states hostile to the Kingdom and that the victim’s presence outside of Saudi Arabia represents a threat to national security and he encouraged the team to persuade the victim to return, noting that his return represents a significant achievement of the mission."

Shalaan also said that prosecutors would seek death penalties for five defendants convicted of "ordering and committing" Khashoggi's murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October.

He did not name the five individuals facing the death penalty.

Another six defendants have also been convicted in connection with the case, Saudi authorities initially said that 21 suspects had been detained as part of their murder investigation.

Qahtani has been banned from travelling and is also under investigation, Shalaan said.

But Shalaan made no mention of Mohammed bin Salman, who is widely suspected to have knowledge of the plot to kill Khashoggi because several members of the team that carried out the operation were members of his personal security team.

Translation: Prosecutors: 11 people charged with killing Khashoggi

According to the prosecutor's statement, the now-sacked deputy chief of Saudi intelligence, Ahmed al-Assiri, had formed a team to repatriate Khashoggi to his home country, and sought Qahtani's help in recruiting others to take part in the operation. 

One of those was a forensics doctor who joined the team "for the purpose of removing evidence from the scene in the case force had to be used to return the victim". This was done without the knowledge of the forensic expert's superiors, it added. 

According to the statement, the team received instructions to persuade Khashoggi to return to the kingdom, or to return him "by force" if persuation failed. 

“The leader of the mission to repatriate Khashoggi decided to kill him when he failed to convince him to return,” Shaalan said.

On Monday, the New York Times revealed that the suspected leader of the murder squad, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, instructed his superior to “tell your boss” that Khashoggi had been killed in one of four calls back to Riyadh on the day of the murder - a phrase that has been interpreted by the US newspaper as referring to MBS.

Saudi Arabia's public prosecutor Saud al-Mujeb (Reuters)

Following Shaalan’s press conference, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said the Khashoggi case should not be politicised and should be treated as a legal case.

Speaking to reporters in Riyadh, Jubeir said that bin Salman had “absolutely nothing to do” with the murder, and rejected Turkish calls for an international investigation.

Turkey calls for international probe

However, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Ankara was "not satisfied" and that it still believed the murder was premeditated. He reiterated Turkey's call for an international probe into the case.

"At the current stage we believe an international investigation is a must," Cavusoglu said, addressing his country's parliament.

Meanwhile, the United States Treasury announced it would implement sanctions on 17 Saudis, including Qahtani, over their suspected involvement in Khashoggi's death.

Others facing sanctions include Mutreb and Mohammad al-Otaibi, the Saudi consul-general in Istanbul, the source said.

The sanctions will be implemented under the Global Magnitsky Act, which imposes sanctions over human rights abuses, the source said.

Inconsistencies with Turkish investigation

According to a Turkish prosecutor, Khashoggi was strangled and dismembered soon after stepping through the mission's doors.

After repeated denials, Saudi Arabia eventually admitted Khashoggi had been murdered at the compound but blamed it on a "rogue" operation.

Investigators concluded that Khashoggi was killed after “a fight” that prompted the team to inject him with a sedative. An overdose, however, led to his death, the statement said, adding that the body was then dismembered and removed by five people from the consulate. 

The Saudi claim contradicts Turkish evidence gleaned from microphones placed inside the consul general’s room, which revealed that Khashoggi was set upon and killed within seven minutes of his arrival.

Last week, a source in the Turkish prosecutor's office told Al Jazeera that Khashoggi was “dissolved completely” by chemicals after he was murdered.

Turkish investigators have reportedly found traces of hydrofluoric acid and other chemicals within the samples submitted by the Saudi authorities, who have so far denied Turkish investigators access to the sewage system attached to the house of the Saudi consul.  

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The Saudi prosecution added on Thursday that the defendants presented “a false report” to the deputy intelligence chief, and that one person handed over the dismembered body to a local accomplice.

Shaalan also went on to say that Saudi investigators had requested that Turkey submit all original recordings and evidence related to the case, but that it has yet to fulfil that request.

However, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week that the recordings had been shared with Saudi Arabia.

On Tuesday, he described the recording as “appalling”, and said that a Saudi intelligence officer was shocked when he listened to the audio. The officer said that whoever was responsible for the killing “must have taken heroin”, according to Erdogan.

Sources inside the kingom have told MEE that bin Salman had assembled an emergency task force - composed of officials from the royal court, the foreign and defence ministries, and the intelligence service - to brief the the crown prince every six hours on how to divert international attention from Khashoggi's killing.

A war in Gaza was among a range of measures and scenarios proposed by the task force, set up to counter increasingly damaging leaks about Khashoggi's murder coming from Turkish authorities, according to sources with knowledge of the group's activities.