Riyadh (AFP) – Jamal Khashoggi, whose gruesome murder plunged Saudi Arabia into its biggest crisis since the 9/11 attacks, was a prominent journalist and critic of the ultra-conservative kingdom’s government.
The 59-year-old Washington Post contributor went into self-imposed exile in the United States in 2017 after falling out with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who had become de facto ruler months earlier.
Turkish officials say he was killed in his country’s Istanbul consulate on October 2, 2018, by a 15-man Saudi squad who strangled him and cut his body into pieces.
His remains were never found.
A Saudi court on Monday sentenced five people to death over the killing, handing three others long jail sentences and acquitting the remaining three charged in the case. However, two top figures investigated over the killing were exonerated.
Both deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri and the royal court’s media czar Saud al-Qahtani — part of Prince Mohammed’s inner circle — were sacked shortly after the murder but eventually cleared “due to insufficient evidence”.
Khashoggi once served as an advisor to the Saudi government, but later became a vociferous critic of Prince Mohammed’s policies, speaking out in both the Arab and Western press.
Never one to mince his words, Khashoggi described a new Saudi era of “fear, intimidation, arrests and public shaming” in an article published in the Post in 2017.
In a March 2018 editorial in The Guardian, co-authored with historian Robert Lacey, Khashoggi wrote: “For his domestic reform programme, the crown prince deserves praise. But at the same time, the brash and abrasive young innovator has not encouraged or permitted any popular debate.”
“He appears to be moving the country from old-time religious extremism to his own ‘You-must-accept-my-reform’ extremism, without any consultation — accompanied by arrests and the disappearance of his critics.”
– Liberal ideas –
Khashoggi fled the country in September 2017, months after Prince Mohammed was appointed heir to the throne and amid a campaign that saw dozens of dissidents arrested, including intellectuals and Islamic preachers.
His criticisms of Saudi Arabia’s policies included its role in Yemen, where Riyadh leads a military coalition fighting alongside the government in its war with Iran-backed Huthi rebels.
He also opposed a Saudi-led boycott of Qatar, a tiny Gulf emirate that has found itself isolated over its allegedly close ties to extremist groups and Iran.
Khashoggi said he had been banned from writing in the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, owned by Saudi Prince Khaled bin Sultan al-Saud, over his defence of the Muslim Brotherhood which Riyadh has blacklisted as a terrorist organisation.
The writer said Saudi authorities banned him from using his verified Twitter account after he said the country should be “rightfully nervous about a Trump presidency”.
US President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed support for Crown Prince Mohammed, describing him as a friend who was doing a “spectacular job”.
In June the president said he was “extremely angry” about the murder but that nobody had “pointed a finger” at the kingdom’s leader.
Khashoggi was born in the western Saudi city of Medina, revered in Islam as the burial place of the Prophet Mohammed.
After a youth spent studying Islamic ideology, he later embraced more liberal ideas.
He began his career as a journalist with Saudi dailies in the 1980s, covering the Afghanistan conflict for the Saudi press.
But the authorities came to see Khashoggi as too progressive and he was forced to resign as editor-in-chief of the Saudi daily Al-Watan in 2003.
However, Khashoggi retained ambiguous ties to Saudi authorities, having held advisory positions in Riyadh and Washington — including to Prince Turki al-Faisal, who ran Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency for more than 20 years.