DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Saudi Arabia's top prosecutor announced Thursday he's recommended the death penalty for five suspects charged with ordering and carrying out the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul.
The announcement by the kingdom's top prosecutor, Saud al-Mojeb, appears aimed at distancing the killers and their operation from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose decision-making powers have placed in the center of global outcry over the killing. The announcement was published in a statement carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency.
The brutal death of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who had been critical of the crown prince, has shocked the world and led many analysts and officials to believe it could not have been carried out without the prince's knowledge.
Turkey says an assassination squad was sent from Riyadh for the writer and insists the orders for the killing came from the highest levels of the Saudi government, but not King Salman.
After issuing the statement, the spokesman for al-Mojeb's office, Shalan al-Shalan, told a rare press conference Thursday in Riyadh that Khashoggi's killers had set in motion plans for the killing 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.
Prosecutors said the highest-level official incriminated in connection with the killing is former deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri, who was fired as pressure from Turkey and the world mounted on Saudi Arabia.
Al-Assiri, a close confidant of Prince Mohammed, is facing charges that include ordering Khashoggi's forced return to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi prosectuors said al-Assiri 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, it appears al-Mojeb has stopped short of accusing al-Assiri of ordering the killing itself — further distancing the killers from the crown prince's inner circle.
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.
The kingdom also confirmed Turkish claims that a 15-man hit squad was sent to Turkey, and that these agents killed Khashoggi.
The writer's body has not been found. 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.
The prosecutor said 21 people are now in custody, with 11 indicted and referred to trial.
This story has been corrected to fix the spelling of the first name of the top Saudi prosecutor and to say that he did not hold the press conference but his spokesman.