Saudi Arabia's top prosecutor said Thursday he's seeking the death penalty for five suspects charged with ordering and carrying out the killing of dissident Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul.
The disclosures by the prosecution appear aimed at distancing the killers and their operation from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose decisionmaking powers have thrust him into the center of a global outcry over the killing.
Chief Saudi prosecutor Saud al-Mojeb's decision to seek the death penalty before trial is not unusual in Saudi Arabia.
Facing mounting international pressure, prosecutors also pointed the finger at two men who were part of the crown prince's inner circle, but stopped short of accusing them of ordering a hit on Mr. Khashoggi. The two are instead being accused of ordering Khashoggi's forced return in an operation the Saudis allege went awry.
In a press conference later Thursday, Sheikh Shalan al-Shalan, spokesman and deputy attorney-general, said the Oct. 2 killing was ordered by one man: The individual responsible for the negotiating team sent to forcibly bring Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia.
He did not disclose that individual's name, but said he was part of a 15-man team sent to Turkey comprised of three groups: negotiators, intelligence, and logistics.
He said that on the morning of the killing, the leader of the negotiating team saw that he would not be able to force Khashoggi to return "so he decided to kill him in the moment."
This appears to contradict a previous Saudi statement quoting Turkish intelligence saying the killing had been premeditated.
Mr. Al-Shalan said that Khashoggi's killers had set in motion plans for the operation on Sept. 29 – three days before his slaying in Istanbul. He says the killers drugged and killed the writer inside the consulate, before dismembering the body and handing it over for disposal by an unidentified local collaborator. The body has never been found.
The brutal death of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who had been critical of the crown prince, has sent shock waves around the world and led analysts and officials to believe a sensitive operation of this magnitude could not have been carried out without the prince's knowledge.
The latest Saudi account of what took place failed to appease officials in Turkey, who insist the killing and its cover-up were carried out by the highest levels of government.
"We did not find some of his explanations to be satisfactory," Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said after the Saudi announcement.
"Those who gave the order, the real perpetrators need to be revealed. This process cannot be closed down in this way," he added.
Through a series of orchestrated leaks, including audio of the killing shared with Western intelligence, Turkey has attempted to keep pressure on the crown prince, who sees Turkey as a regional rival.
Turkey alleges that among those sent to Istanbul was a forensics expert.
In an apparent reference this specialist, al-Shalan said the organizer of the operation – who was not named – called on a specialist to be part of the team to erase evidence if Khashoggi needed to be forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia. Prosecutors said this specialist was working without the direct knowledge of his boss.
Saudi Arabia said 21 people are now in custody, with 11 indicted and referred to trial. The Turkish government is demanding the suspects be investigated and put on trial in Turkey.
Among the high-level officials incriminated in connection with the killing is former deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri, who was fired in the immediate aftermath of the killing.
Mr. Al-Assiri, believed to have been a close confidant of Prince Mohammed, and former royal court adviser Saud al-Qahtani are accused of planning and ordering Khashoggi's forced return to Saudi Arabia. Prosecutors say the men formed a 15-man Saudi team to carry out the operation.
Saudi prosecutors said the men deemed Khashoggi a threat because of his work as a writer and because he was allegedly backed by groups and countries that are hostile to Saudi Arabia.
However, Saudi prosecutors stopped short of accusing al-Assiri or Mr. al-Qahtani of ordering the killing itself – further distancing the killers from the crown prince's inner circle and bolstering Saudi assertions that the killing was carried out by rogue agents who exceeded their authority. Both men were fired from their posts last month amid fallout from the killing.
In a press conference, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister says that the crown prince wasn't involved.
"Absolutely, his royal highness the crown prince has nothing to do with this issue," Adel al-Jubeir told reporters.
Khashoggi had been living in self-imposed exile abroad for nearly a year before he was killed by Saudi agents at the consulate on Oct. 2. In his writing, he was especially critical of the crown prince, who'd been leading a wide-reaching crackdown on activists and critics inside the kingdom since last year.
Khashoggi had gone to the consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents for his upcoming marriage. His Turkish fiancee waited outside and first raised the alarm about his disappearance.
This story was reported by The Associated Press.