French police on Tuesday arrested a suspected member of the hit squad that murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul and who is wanted by Turkey to face justice over the killing. Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Paris said it was a case of mistaken identity, and that the arrested person has “nothing to do with the case”.
Khalid Alotaibi, 33, was detained by border police on the basis of an arrest warrant issued by Turkey just before taking a flight to Riyadh from Charles de Gaulle Airport on Tuesday morning, judicial and airport sources said. His name appeared in a Washington Post investigation on the alleged hit squad, based on passport copies and travel details.
The Saudi embassy said late Tuesday that a Saudi national arrested in Paris has nothing to do with the Khashoggi case and should be released immediately. The embassy reaffirmed that the Saudi judiciary had already issued verdicts over the case and the people convicted were all serving sentences.
Checks were still under way on Tuesday evening to ensure the suspect was correctly identified and that the arrest warrant applies to him, another source close to the case added, noting that the suspect’s detention could last up to 48 hours.
If confirmed as the suspected assassination team member, Alotaibi will then appear before French prosecutors.
In such a circumstance, the suspect could choose to fight extradition to Turkey. The French judiciary would then decide whether to keep Alotaibi in detention pending a formal Turkish extradition request, or to free him on condition that he does not leave France.
Alotaibi is one of 26 Saudis charged in absentia by Turkey over the murder of Khashoggi, including two former aides to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. If convicted, he could face life imprisonment.
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 fiancée.
“I welcome the arrest of one of Jamal’s killers today in #France,” Khashoggi’s bereaved fiancée Hatice Cengiz said on Twitter. “France should try him for his crime, or extradite him to a country able and willing to genuinely investigate and prosecute him as well as the person who gave the order to murder Jamal.”
According to US and Turkish officials, a waiting Saudi hit squad strangled Khashoggi and dismembered his body, which has never been recovered.
The gruesome murder sparked international outrage that continues to reverberate, with Western intelligence agencies accusing the Saudi crown prince of authorising the killing.
Tuesday’s arrest comes only days after French President Emmanuel Macron defended his decision to include Saudi Arabia in a tour of Gulf states, saying the visit did not mean that he had “forgotten” about the Khashoggi case.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan 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.
Turkey asked Interpol in 2018 to locate and arrest suspects in Khashoggi killing.
But Erdogan has never directly blamed the Saudi crown prince and there have in recent months been signs of a thaw between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, with the Turkish foreign minister visiting Riyadh earlier this year in a bid to mend ties.
On the third anniversary of the killing, Cengiz, who was waiting outside the consulate while the murder took place, accused the US of failing to hold Saudi Arabia accountable.