Saudi Arabia says France arrested wrong man over Khashoggi murder

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French police have arrested a Saudi national suspected of involvement in the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as Saudi officials said they believed it was a case of mistaken identity.

The man was detained by border police on the basis of an arrest warrant issued by Turkey as he was about to board a flight to Riyadh from Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport, judicial and airport sources told the AFP news agency, asking not to be named.

Investigators on Tuesday were seeking to confirm that the man carrying a passport in the name of Khalid Alotaibi was indeed the suspect by the same name sought by Turkey and sanctioned by the US over the gruesome killing of Khashoggi that unleashed a wave of global anger.

The Saudi embassy in Paris issued a statement saying the man arrested “has nothing to do with the case in question” and demanded his immediate release.

A security source in Saudi Arabia added that “Khaled Alotaibi” was a very common name in the kingdom, and that the Alotaibi the French thought they were holding was actually serving time in prison in Saudi Arabia along with “all the defendants in the case”.

A man named Khalid Alotaibi is one of 26 Saudis charged in absentia by Turkey over the killing in a trial that got under way in October 2020. If convicted, he could face life imprisonment.

Two of the 26 being tried in absentia in Turkey are former aides to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). No Saudi official has ever faced justice in person in Turkey for the killing.

Alotaibi is also one of 17 people that the US Treasury designated for sanctions in 2018 over their role in the murder.

Identity being confirmed

A source close to the case said that the Interpol Red Notice issued at Turkey’s request came up as the traveller was passing through passport control.

Checks were still under way on Tuesday evening to ensure his identity is correct and that the arrest warrant applies to him, another source close to the case added, noting that his detention can last up to 48 hours.

If confirmed as the suspected assassination team member, he will appear before French prosecutors.

He would have the right to challenge extradition to Turkey. If he does, the French judiciary must decide whether to keep him in detention pending a formal Turkish extradition request or to free him on the condition that he does not leave France.

It can typically take several weeks or months for a court to rule on whether to hand him over to Turkey against his will.

In September 2020, a Saudi court overturned five death sentences issued after a closed-door trial in Saudi Arabia, sentencing the accused to 20 years in prison instead.

The trial was criticised by a UN official and human rights campaigners who said the masterminds of the murder remained free.

“This could be a major breakthrough in the quest for justice for Jamal Khashoggi,” former UN investigator Agnes Callamard said of the Paris detention.

In her 2019 report for the United Nations, Callamard named Alotaibi as being part of a Saudi team that killed Khashoggi and dismembered his body before flying back to Saudi Arabia.

She said more confirmation was required to prove that the man held in France is the same person she identified in her report.

Khashoggi – a prominent Saudi national who lived in self-exile in the United States and wrote for The Washington Post  newspaper- entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018 to file paperwork to marry his Turkish fiancee.

According to US and Turkish officials, a waiting Saudi hit squad strangled him and dismembered his body, which has never been retrieved.

The gruesome murder sparked international outrage that continues to reverberate, with Western intelligence agencies accusing Saudi’s de-facto leader MBS of authorising the killing.

Not ‘forgotten’

Tuesday’s arrest comes only days after French President Emmanuel Macron defended his decision to include Saudi Arabia in a tour of Gulf states, saying the visit did not mean that he had “forgotten” about the Khashoggi case. Macron was the first major Western leader to visit the kingdom since the murder.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said the order to murder Khashoggi came from “the highest levels” of the Saudi government, but he has never directly blamed MBS.

The arrest in Paris comes as Turkey has been trying to rekindle ties with the kingdom and other Arab states at a time when its economy is faltering.

Meanwhile, Khashoggi’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz said in a statement the arrest of the suspect if confirmed, is “a very significant first step for justice for Jamal”.

“Justice must be allowed to take its proper course … Most importantly, those who executed the plan must not be used to shield those much higher up who gave the order for Jamal’s brutal killing, including the Crown Prince himself. They must also be arrested and prosecuted.”

In a Tweet, she urged France to “try him for his crime, or extradite him to a country able and willing to genuinely investigate and prosecute him”.

I welcome the arrest of one of Jamal’s killers today in #France. France should try him for his crime, or extradite him to a country able and willing to genuinely investigate and prosecute him as well as the person who gave the order to murder Jamal. https://t.co/naqzfujCsp

— Hatice Cengiz / خديجة (@mercan_resifi) December 7, 2021

Media rights body Reporters Without Borders (RSF) described the arrest as “excellent news” and said it had filed a legal complaint against Alotaibi for murder, torture and enforced disappearance in October 2019.

RSF said it had maintained “complete confidentiality” about the complaint in order to improve the chances of his arrest during a visit to France.

The group’s director Christophe Deloire said: “Sometimes governments close their eyes about people who are pursued by justice in another country. I note with satisfaction that there was an arrest, and the police didn’t close their eyes this time.”

Alotaibi “is someone we have been following for a long time,” he added.

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