By Asma Alsharif
DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabian prosecutors is seeking the death penalty for five of the 11 suspects detained over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the state news agency SPA said on Thursday, as a Saudi court held a first hearing on the case.
Saudi Arabia said it also sent new letters to the Turkish public prosecutor asking for “any evidence connected to this case”, which has rattled the Saudi royal court and damaged the reputation of 33-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Khashoggi was close to the royal circles before becoming a critic of Prince Mohammed, writing for the Washington Post and speaking to international media about Saudi politics when he moved to the United States last year.
Saudi officials have rejected accusations that the crown prince ordered his murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, 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 still unknown. A Turkish television channel on Monday showed men carrying suitcases purportedly containing the remains into the residence of the Saudi consul general in Istanbul.
“The initial hearing for the 11 individuals indicted by the Public Prosecution in the case of the murder of citizen Jamal Khashoggi was held today … in the Criminal Court of Riyadh,” a statement from the Saudi prosecutor carried by SPA said.
The prosecutor’s office said it was seeking the death penalty for five individuals among the 11 indicted. Ten other suspects were still under investigation.
Without naming them, the prosecutor said last November the five individuals facing by the death penalty were “charged with ordering and committing the crime”.
SPA added that the defendants’ lawyers attended the hearing and the court approved a request from the 11 for more time to prepare their defence. It gave no details on the next hearing.
Saudi King Salman sacked Saud al-Qahtani, a former top aide to Prince Mohammed, Istanbul Consul General Mohammed Alotaibi and former deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Asiri in connection with Khashoggi’s murder.
The kingdom has come under heavy international pressure, including from the United States, its closest ally, whose Senate has voted in favour of a resolution blaming the crown prince for the murder.
U.S. senators were briefed by U.S. intelligence agencies which concluded that Prince Mohammed ordered the operation to kill Khashoggi.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said Khashoggi’s killing was ordered by the highest level of Saudi leadership.
Thursday’s statement said the kingdom was still awaiting responses to requests for information sent to Turkish officials.
Last week, King Salman put Ibrahim al-Assaf, a veteran former finance minister, in charge of foreign affairs, in an effort to improve the kingdom’s image after the crisis caused by the killing.
Assaf replaced Adel al-Jubeir, and experts in Saudi politics said the move reflected a perception that Jubeir was tainted by having served as Riyadh’s chief global defender during the Khashoggi affair.
(Writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)