French authorities said Wednesday they had released a man arrested on suspicion of playing a role in the 2018 Istanbul murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, after realizing he was not the same individual on an arrest warrant issued by Turkey, Agence France-Presse reported.
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.
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 authorizing the killing.
– ‘All serving’ –
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.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said the order to murder Khashoggi came from “the highest levels” of the Saudi government, and the case led to tensions between Ankara and Riyadh.
But Erdoğan has never directly blamed Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and there have in recent months been signs of the thaw between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, with the Turkish foreign minister visiting Riyadh earlier this year in a bid to repair ties.
Crucially there have also been signs after many years of tensions in the wake of the 2016 failed coup bid of a thaw between Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s top ally, the United Arab Emirates, with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed visiting Turkey last month.
On the third anniversary of the killing, Khashoggi’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz, who was waiting outside the consulate while the murder took place, accused the US of failing to hold Saudi Arabia accountable.