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Saudi Arabia: Court Issues Final Sentences in Khashoggi Case

(Sept. 22, 2020) On September 7, 2020, the Criminal Court of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, issued final sentences for eight defendants in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The court had previously sentenced five of the defendants to death but, according to the Public Prosecution, the court replaced the death sentence with the penalty of imprisonment after the journalist’s family decided to pardon them. A news report in the Saudi Gazette stated that Khashoggi’s family considered the final verdicts against the defendants to be “fair rulings.”

The 59-year-old journalist, a prominent critic of the Saudi government who had gone into self-imposed exile in the U.S. in 2017, was murdered on October 2, 2018, in what the Saudi government called “a rogue operation” inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a team of Saudi agents. The initial hearing for the individuals indicted by the Public Prosecution in the case was held on January 3, 2019, in the Criminal Court of Riyadh. According to the Voice of America’s Arabic Alhurra outlet, the official spokesman for the Saudi Public Prosecution “did not disclose the names of the convicts, the accusation leveled against each of them, or the defenses they had made.” UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard has called into question the fairness and transparency of the process leading up to the final verdicts.

Final Verdict

The criminal court sentenced five of the eight defendants to 20 years of imprisonment, two defendants to seven years of imprisonment, and one defendant to 10 years of imprisonment. The variations in the sentences were in accordance with Islamic law, which allows a judge to impose sentences for ta’zeer (discretionary) offenses on the basis of his interpretation of the Qur’an or hadeeth (sayings of Prophet Muhammad).

Provisions Applied by the Criminal Court

The code of criminal procedures (promulgated by Royal Decree M/2 of 22/1/1935 (Hijri), corresponding to November 26, 2013) sets forth specific conditions under which criminal trials end: (1) the court issues a final judgment, (2) the king pardons the defendant, (3) the repentance of a perpetrator in specific crimes where Islamic law allows waiving the penalty upon repentance, or (4) the death of the defendant. (Code of Criminal Procedures art. 22.)

The code also stipulates that the right of a private party to sue the perpetrator may end under the following conditions: (1) The court issues a final verdict or (2) the family of the victim pardons the defendant. (Art. 23.)

Defendants have the right to file a petition before the High Court to appeal final verdicts issued by the criminal court within 30 days from the day the lower court issues its final verdict. (Arts. 199, 210.) Defendants must send such petitions to the court that issued the final decision, which will then refer the petition to the High Court. (Art. 200.) If the High Court accepts the petition, it will review the case. After reviewing the petition, the High Court has the authority to uphold the final verdict issued by the lower court or to refer the case back to the lower court that issued the final verdict to review the case one more time. (Art. 202.) The defendant must undergo any punishment issued in the final verdict. (Art. 212.)

Family of the Victims Pardoning Defendants

In May 2020, the family of Jamal Khashoggi issued a statement indicating that they had pardoned the defendants in this case. However, in accordance with article 23 of the code of criminal procedures, the amnesty provided by the victim’s family does not prevent the continuation of the criminal case against the defendant.

According to the Saudi Gazette, the Khashoggi family’s pardon of the perpetrators was based on verse 40 of Surat Al-Shurah in the Qur’an, which says that “whoever pardons and makes reconciliation, his reward lies with God. He does not love the unjust.”