France releases Khashoggi suspect, admits identity mistaken

Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi speaks at an event hosted by Middle East Monitor in London, Britain in this September 29, 2018 file photo. — Reuters

PARIS: French authorities said on Wednesday they had released a man arrested on suspicion of playing a role in the 2018 Istanbul murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, after realising he was not the same individual on an arrest warrant issued by Turkey.

The man, bearing a passport in the name of Khalid al-Otaibi, was arrested by French border police at Paris’s main airport on Tuesday as he prepared to board a flight to Riyadh, police and judicial sources said.

Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi speaks at an event hosted by Middle East Monitor in London, Britain in this September 29, 2018 file photo. — Reuters

A man named Khalid al-Otaibi is one of the 26 being tried in absentia in Turkey for being part of the hit squad that carried out Khashoggi’s murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He has also been sanctioned by the US Treasury for his role in the killing.

“In-depth verifications to determine the identity of this person have enabled us to establish that the warrant was not applicable to him,” the chief prosecutor in Paris said in a statement, confirming the man had been arrested on the basis of a Turkish arrest warrant issued in November 2018. “He has been released,” the prosecutor added.

While French authorities checked his identity, the Saudi embassy in Paris issued a statement late on Tuesday saying that the man arrested “has nothing to do with the case in question” and demanding his immediate release.

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

No Saudi official has ever faced justice in person in Turkey for the killing, with all the suspects there tried in absentia.

The murder sparked international outrage that continues to reverberate, with Western intelligence agencies accusing the kingdom’s de-facto ruler Prince Mohammed bin Salman of authorising the killing.

Media rights body Reporters Without Borders (RSF) had called Tuesday’s arrest “excellent news” and said it previously had filed a legal complaint with Paris prosecutors against the suspect al-Otaibi 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 any visit to France.

Saudi Arabia has always insisted that the legal process it carried out into the Khashoggi killing has been completed and there is no need for any further arrests.

“The Saudi judiciary has issued verdicts against all those who took part in the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi, all of them are currently serving their sentences,” the Paris embassy said.

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.

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