RIYADH/ANKARA (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor is seeking the death penalty for five out of 11 suspects charged in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, his office said on Thursday, as the kingdom tries to contain its biggest political crisis in a generation.
Khashoggi, a royal insider turned critic of Saudi policy, was killed in the country’s Istanbul consulate on Oct. 2 after a struggle, by lethal injection, deputy public prosecutor and spokesman Shalaan al-Shalaan told reporters.
Shalaan said that de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman knew nothing of the operation, in which Khashoggi’s body was dismembered, removed from the building and handed over to an unidentified “local cooperator”.
The whereabouts of Khashoggi’s remains are unknown, he said.
Shalaan’s account of the killing, the latest of Riyadh’s shifting explanations, was met with scepticism in Turkey while a U.S. senator said it was unbelievable that the killing could not have been carried out without orders.
Shalaan said the Washington Post columnist was murdered after “negotiations” for his return to the kingdom failed, and that the killing was ordered by the head of a negotiating team sent to repatriate Khashoggi after he decided it was unfeasible to remove the journalist from the consulate.
The order to repatriate Khashoggi had come from former deputy intelligence chief General Ahmed al-Asiri, Shalaan added. Asiri was sacked last month following an initial investigation.
Asked if Prince Mohammed played a role in the murder, he said: “He did not have any knowledge.” That stance was reiterated by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, who said the prince had absolutely nothing to do with the case and accused Turkey of ignoring Saudi requests for information.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said the order for the operation came from the highest level of Saudi leadership but probably not King Salman, putting the spotlight instead on his 33-year-old heir. U.S. President Donald Trump has suggested ultimate responsibility lies with the prince as de facto ruler.
Riyadh initially denied any knowledge of Khashoggi’s disappearance, then offered contradictory explanations including that he was killed in a rogue operation. The case has sparked a global outcry, opened the kingdom to possible sanctions and tarnished the image of Prince Mohammed.
U.S. Democratic Senator Chris Coons dismissed the idea that a rogue team carried out the killing. “I find that utterly incredible,” he said on CNN, calling for a U.S. investigation using information from Turkish intelligence and other sources.
“We should reach our own conclusions, rather than letting the Saudis come up with a different version of events,” he said.
Some details provided on Thursday again contradicted previous versions, none of which mentioned a drug-induced death and one of which called the killing premeditated based on information provided by Turkish authorities.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that the measures announced by the Saudi public prosecutor’s office were “positive but insufficient”, and repeated Ankara’s demand that the 15-man team be tried in Turkey.
An adviser to Erdogan said the Saudi comments were meant to cover up the murder. “I don’t believe the real perpetrators will be found through Saudi Arabia’s investigation,” Yasin Aktay said.
Without naming them, Shalaan said the Saudi prosecutor has requested the death penalty for five individuals “who are charged with ordering and committing the crime, and for the appropriate sentences for the other indicted individuals”.
He said 11 out of 21 suspects have been indicted and will be referred to court, while investigations of the remaining suspects will continue to determine their role in the crime.
A travel ban has been imposed on a former top aide to the crown prince, Saud al-Qahtani, while investigations continue over his role, Shalaan said.
He said Qahtani had coordinated with Asiri, meeting the operatives ahead of their journey to Istanbul to brief them on the journalist’s activities.
Qahtani has already been fired from the royal court, but four sources based in the Gulf told Reuters this week that he was still at liberty and continued to operate discreetly.
A senior government official previously identified the head of the negotiating team as Maher Mutreb, an aide to Qahtani who has appeared in photographs with Prince Mohammed on official visits this year to the United States and Europe.
Six weeks after the murder, Turkey is trying to keep up pressure on Prince Mohammed and has released a stream of evidence that undermined Riyadh’s early denials of involvement.
Turkey says it has recordings related to the killing which it has shared with Western allies. One Turkish official told Reuters that officials who heard the recordings, which include Khashoggi’s killing as well as conversations leading up to the operation, were horrified but their countries had done nothing.
Last month two intelligence sources said that Qahtani gave orders over Skype to Khashoggi’s killers. More recently, a government source familiar with the matter said Qahtani featured prominently throughout the recordings.
Erdogan has said Turkey also played the recordings to Saudi officials, something Shalaan declined to confirm or deny. He said Riyadh asked Ankara to share witness testimonies and hand over Khashoggi’s phones.
Additional reporting by Maha El Dahan and Asma Al Sharif in Dubai; Writing by Tuqa Khalid and Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Dominic Evans/Mark Heinrich