Saudi sentencing in Khashoggi killing draws criticism — except from White House

Saudi Arabia’s death sentence Monday for five people connected to journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing after a trial shrouded in secrecy has prompted widespread criticism — except from the White House.

The White House has not issued an official statement as of Monday afternoon, but a senior administration called the sentencing an “important step.”

“This is an important step in holding those responsible for this terrible crime accountable, and we encourage Saudi Arabia to continue with a fair and transparent judicial process,” the official said.

The response was an outlier among the international community, which blasted Riyadh for its opaque justice system and failing to hold senior officials accountable for Khashoggi’s 2018 murder.

“Bottom line: the hit-men are guilty, sentenced to death. The masterminds not only walk free. They have barely been touched by the investigation and the trial,” Agnes Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur who investigated Khashoggi’s death, tweeted Monday. “That is the antithesis of Justice. It is a mockery.”

Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist critical of the Saudi government, was killed and dismembered in 2018 by a hit squad while at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

The CIA has reportedly concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing, though Saudi officials have denied he had any knowledge of the plot.

Khashoggi’s death prompted international outrage, including calls in the United States to revisit the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden MORE, though, resisted harsh penalties against Riyadh, arguing a U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia is necessary to counter Iran and protect a significant source of the global oil supply. He has also argued a break in relations would disadvantage U.S. arms manufacturers without helping the region.

Following a nearly yearlong trial that was closed to the public, Saudi Deputy Public Prosecutor Shaalan al-Shaalan announced in a televised press conference on Monday death sentences for five people connected to the killing and jail sentences totaling 24 years for three other people. He did not name any of those sentenced.

Shaalan also said three top officials were cleared, including a former top adviser to the crown prince, Saud al-Qahtani. Ahmed al-Assiri, the former deputy head of intelligence, and Mohamed al-Otaibi, who was consul general in the consulate in Istanbul when the killing happened, were also cleared.

Amnesty International quickly blasted the verdict as a “whitewash.”

“This verdict is a whitewash which brings neither justice nor the truth for Jamal Khashoggi and his loved ones,” Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East research director, said in a statement.

“The verdict fails to address the Saudi authorities’ involvement in this devastating crime or clarify the location of Jamal Khashoggi’s remains,” Maalouf continued, adding that Saudi Arabian courts “routinely deny defendants access to lawyers and condemn people to death following grossly unfair trials.”

“Given the lack of transparency from the Saudi authorities, and in the absence of an independent judiciary, only an international, independent and impartial investigation can serve justice for Jamal Khashoggi,” Maalouf concluded.

Turkey, meanwhile, said the verdict “falls short.”

“The fact that important aspects such as the fate of Mr. Khashoggi’s body, the masterminds of the murder and any local collaborators remain in the dark is a fundamental lapse of justice and violates the principle of accountability,” Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hami Aksoy said in a statement.

The response from Washington, where lawmakers, the president and others have left for the holiday, was somewhat muted. But those who reacted similarly blasted the “farce” of the verdict as well as Trump's continued support for the Saudis.

“This is not justice, it is a farce,” Sen. Jack ReedJack ReedTop Democrat calls Trump's Afghan drawdown 'the right policy decision' as others warn of 'mistake' Overnight Defense: Trump fires Defense chief Mark Esper | Worries grow about rudderless post-election Pentagon | Esper firing hints at broader post-election shake-up | Pelosi says Esper firing shows Trump intent on sowing 'chaos' Esper firing hints at broader post-election shake-up MORE (D-R.I.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “Giving the death penalty and prison sentences to a few of the lower level individuals who were apparently involved in this heinous crime while failing to hold those responsible for ordering, supervising, masterminding and covering up the murder is an appalling attempt to sweep aside the truth.”

Reed also blasted the Trump administration for “aiding and abetting this cover up” and Trump for repeatedly calling the press “the enemy of the people.”

“This sentencing will not stop us from speaking out about Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. We will continue to press his case and demand truth and justice,” Reed added.

The news release from Reed’s office also highlighted a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act, which Trump signed into law Friday, that requires the director of national intelligence to identify those responsible for Khashoggi’s death and who impeded the investigation into his death.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffOVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Trump pardons Flynn | Lawmakers lash out at decision | Pentagon nixes Thanksgiving dining hall meals due to COVID-19 Democratic impeachment leaders blast Trump's pardon of Flynn Trump pardons Michael Flynn MORE (D-Calif.), meanwhile, called the sentence a “continuation of the Kingdom’s effort to distance Saudi leadership” from Khashoggi’s killing.

“This was a premeditated murder, not a ‘snap decision’ or rogue operation,” Schiff tweeted.

Sen. Angus KingAngus KingLeadership changes at top cyber agency raise national security concerns Top cybersecurity official ousted by Trump Republicans start turning the page on Trump era MORE (I-Maine), who stressed the need for “justice and accountability” to be “delivered clearly, publicly and without equivocation” during a September visit to Saudi Arabia, said Monday’s verdict “does not seem to meet those criteria.”

In his statement, King added that he looks “forward to receiving more information on these developments from U.S. diplomatic and intelligence officials in the near future.” 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) called the trial a “sham” and said the masterminds walked away “scot-free.”

“Trump is also culpable—having done next to nothing to hold the Crown Prince accountable for murdering a brave, truth-seeking journalist,” Blumenthal tweeted.

Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineDemocrats face increasing pressure to back smaller COVID-19 stimulus Rick Scott tests positive for coronavirus Grassley tests positive for coronavirus MORE (D-Va.) said the Trump administration should be “demanding justice” following the sentencing.

“Senior Saudi officials continue to escape accountability for the state-sponsored murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” he tweeted. “The Trump administration should be demanding justice for the brutal killing of a journalist and VA resident instead of ignoring the CIA’s assessment of who killed him.”

Morgan Chalfant contributed.