France frees Saudi national held over suspected Khashoggi link

Saudi officials had earlier said the detention of a Saudi man at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport was a case of mistaken identity.

Jamal Khashoggi
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul [File: Omar Shagaleh/Anadolu]

The Saudi man arrested on Tuesday at a Paris airport over suspected links to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has been released after officials concluded it was a case of mistaken identity, Paris prosecutors said on Wednesday.

French law enforcement sources on Tuesday named the man as Khalid Alotaibi, the same name as a former member of the Saudi Royal Guard listed in US and British sanctions documents and a United Nations-commissioned report as having been involved in Khashoggi’s killing in Turkey.

The Saudi embassy in Paris had said late on Tuesday the arrested person “has nothing to do with the case in question”.

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

Prosecutors said checks had shown that a warrant issued by Turkey, which had triggered the arrest when the man’s passport was scanned during border checks, did not apply to the man arrested at the airport.

“Extensive checks on the identity of this person showed that the warrant did not apply to him … he was released,” the statement from the prosecutor’s office said.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist and critic of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler – Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. Turkish officials believe his body was dismembered and removed. His remains have not been found.

News of the arrest – when it was thought he was indeed the man sought by Turkey – had triggered a wave of reactions, with rights groups and Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancee, expressing relief that such a high-profile suspect would be judged.

A 2019 UN investigation report said Alotaibi was a member of a 15-man Saudi team involved in killing Khashoggi after he went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain a document to allow him to marry Cengiz.

The arrest had come at a sensitive time, just days after French President Emmanuel Macron held face-to-face talks in Saudi Arabia with Prince Mohammed, becoming the first major Western leader to visit the kingdom since Khashoggi’s murder.

Macron considers Saudi Arabia vital to help forge a region-wide peace deal with Iran, as well as an ally in the push against hardline groups from the Middle East to West Africa.

A man named Khalid Alotaibi is one of the 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 MBS. No Saudi official has ever faced justice in person in Turkey for the killing.

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

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.

According to US and Turkish officials, a waiting Saudi hit squad strangled Khashoggi and dismembered his body.

The gruesome murder sparked international outrage that continues to reverberate, with Western intelligence agencies accusing MBS of authorising the killing.

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.

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.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies