Two top Saudi royal advisors have been linked to journalist Jamal Khashoggi's murder. One has been labeled the "ringleader" but questions are swirling over the absence of the other in the closed-door trial of 11 suspects, multiple sources told AFP.
Saudi prosecutors have said deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri oversaw the Washington Post columnist's killing in the kingdom's Istanbul consulate last October and that he was advised by the royal court's media czar Saud al-Qahtani.
Both aides were part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's tight-knit inner circle and have formally been sacked over the killing but only Assiri has appeared in the five court hearings since January, according to four Western officials privy to the information.
"Qahtani is not among the 11 facing trial," one of the officials told AFP.
"What does his absence mean? Are the Saudis keen to protect him or discipline him separately? No one knows."
The kingdom's public prosecutor last November indicted 11 unnamed suspects, including five who could face the death penalty over the murder.
Diplomats from the UN Security Council's permanent members -- the US, Britain, France, China, Russia -- as well as Turkey are allowed to attend as observers of the legal proceedings that are held entirely in Arabic.
They are not allowed to bring interpreters and are usually summoned at short notice, the sources said.
A representative of the Khashoggi family -- which this month rejected reports of a settlement with the Saudi government -- has attended at least one court session, they said.
Maher Mutreb, an intelligence operative who frequently traveled with the crown prince on foreign tours, forensic expert Salah al-Tubaigy and Fahad al-Balawi, a member of the Saudi royal guard, are among the 11 on trial who could face the death penalty, the officials said.
The defendants are allowed legal counsel.
Many of them have defended themselves in court by saying they were carrying out orders by Assiri, describing him as the "ringleader" of the operation, according to the officials.
The kingdom's media ministry did not respond to AFP's request for comment. The defendants' lawyers could also not be reached.
Where is Qahtani?
Assiri, lionized in Saudi military ranks as a war hero, does not face the death penalty, the Western officials added.
Believed to have previously worked closely with US intelligence, he is also not named in two American sanctions lists of Saudis implicated in the murder.
Qahtani, who led fiery social media campaigns against critics of the kingdom and was seen as a conduit to the crown prince, is on both lists.
He met the Saudi hit squad team before they left for Turkey to share "useful information related to the mission based on his specialisation in media," according to the Saudi prosecutor's office.
But he has not appeared publicly since the murder and his current whereabouts are a subject of fevered speculation.
Some Saudis claim he continues to peddle influence behind the scenes, but others say he is lying low, waiting for the international outrage over the murder to subside.
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported earlier this year that Prince Mohammed continues to seek his counsel, citing US and Saudi sources.
"Qahtani holds a lot of files and dossiers," Ignatius quoted one American who met the crown prince as saying.
"The idea that you can have a radical rupture with him is unrealistic."
Lack of transparency
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who faces intense scrutiny in Congress over Washington's close relations with Riyadh, has urged the crown prince to snap his ties with Qahtani, two Western officials told AFP.
The CIA has reportedly said the murder was likely ordered by Prince Mohammed, the de facto ruler and heir to the throne.
Saudi authorities strongly deny the allegation, and in private conversations with Western officials they have instead criticized Turkish authorities for failing to stop the murder.
"Their intelligence knew that a (Saudi) hit squad was coming. They could have stopped them!" one of them quoted a Saudi official as saying.
Turkish officials were the first to report Khashoggi's murder and have continued to press Saudi Arabia for information on the whereabouts of his dismembered body, which has yet to be found.
Agnes Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur conducting an independent inquiry into the killing, last month condemned what she called a lack of transparency in the legal proceedings and demanded an open trial.
The kingdom "is grievously mistaken if it believes that these proceedings, as currently constituted, will satisfy the international community," she said.
It was unclear when the Saudi trial will conclude.
This month, a coalition of seven international human rights and press freedom groups called on Britain, France, and the US to issue public reports on the trial.
Secret trial proceedings "run the risk of enabling the authorities in Riyadh to find a set of individuals guilty, without due process, while whitewashing the possible involvement of the highest levels of the Saudi government," the coalition said in an open letter.
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