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Saudi Arabia Prosecutors Request Death Penalty For People Accused Of Killing Jamal Khashoggi


Prosecutors in Saudi Arabia today formally requested the death penalty for five unidentified suspects in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. The Saudi journalist's death in October sparked international outrage and focused a spotlight on the kingdom's powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. U.S. intelligence agencies believe he was behind the killing. As NPR's Jackie Northam reports, the prosecution is unlikely to quell questions about the crown prince's involvement.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The hearing in a Riyadh courtroom comes three months after Jamal Khashoggi disappeared at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Saudi government changed its story several times about what happened to Khashoggi before announcing they had arrested several people, including members of a Saudi hit team, with his death. Simon Henderson, a Persian Gulf specialist at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says today's hearing signals the Saudi government is moving the process forward - barely.

SIMON HENDERSON: Sadly, we don't know the identity of the suspects who are at the hearing, nor do we know what happened exactly at the hearing because, as far as I can make out, there weren't any members of the public there, nor any media.

NORTHAM: The kingdom's public prosecutor issued a statement providing some details about the hearing. Eleven defendants were in court today, including the five facing the death penalty. Another 10 people are also under investigation for Khashoggi's death. All those in court today had defense lawyers and were told of the charges against them and asked for time to prepare for their defense. Ellen Wald, author of a book about Saudi Arabia, says this is more than many defendants get in the kingdom's courts.

ELLEN WALD: It's not really an independent judiciary, and they don't really have due process. And so sometimes when accused come before a court, they don't have lawyers or they're not told of what these charges are. But in this case, they were presented with the charges.

NORTHAM: Gerald Feierstein, a senior vice president at the Middle East Institute, says presenting an image that the defendants will get a full and fair trial is an effort by the Saudis to change the narrative over Khashoggi's death, which has hurt the kingdom's image and hampered much-needed foreign investment.

GERALD FEIERSTEIN: I think that, clearly, the desire of the Saudi leadership was that this would satisfy the international demand for justice and that they could get back to business as usual.

NORTHAM: Feierstein says it's unlikely that will happen in the short term and that the calls for justice for the killing of Khashoggi will continue.

FEIERSTEIN: The concern, of course, is that it doesn't really address what is the core element of U.S. concern and that is, why did this happen and where did the orders come from? The people who ordered it, the people who are behind it are not going to ever acknowledge their responsibility.

NORTHAM: And because they'll be seen as covering up for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly referred to as MBS, says the Washington Institute's Henderson.

HENDERSON: There are essentially two views on MBS. One is that they - he did it and must be embarrassed. And the other is that we'll never know whether he did it, and in the meantime, Saudi Arabia is too important a country to ignore completely. And therefore, we have to reluctantly accept what is going - has gone on and continue to deal with MBS.

NORTHAM: Prosecutors did not say when the next hearing would be. Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.