PARIS (AFP) — French authorities sought on Wednesday to confirm the identity of a man arrested on suspicion of playing a key role in the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi after Saudi Arabia insisted the suspect was a victim of mistaken identity.
The man, bearing a passport in the name of Khaled Alotaibi, 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 Khaled Alotaibi is one of the 26 on trial in absentia by Turkey for being part of the hit squad that carried out the murder of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He has also been sanctioned by the US Treasury for his role in the killing.
The man was detained after an Interpol Red Notice issued at the request of Turkey was activated as he passed through the passport control, said a source close to the case, who asked not to be identified.
But the Saudi Embassy in Paris issued a statement late on Tuesday saying the man arrested “has nothing to do with the case in question” and demanded his immediate release.
A security source in Saudi Arabia added that “Khaled Alotaibi” was a very common name in the kingdom, and that the Alotaibi the French thought they were holding was actually serving time in prison in Saudi Arabia along with “all the defendants in the case.”
Twenty-six Saudis are now on trial in absentia in Istanbul over the killing in a process that began in October 2020. No Saudi official has ever faced justice in person in Turkey for the killing.
Alotaibi is also one of 17 people that the US Treasury designated for sanctions in 2018 over their role in the murder.
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.
A source close to the case said that the man can be detained for up to 48 hours while further checks are carried out on his identity.
If confirmed as the suspected member of the assassination team, he will appear before French prosecutors, ahead of any possible extradition procedure should Turkey make such a request.
Media rights body Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called Tuesday’s arrest “excellent news” and said it had filed a legal complaint with Paris prosecutors against Alotaibi 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. The case was eventually closed by the prosecutor’s office in the absence of any indication of his presence in France but RSF said it would now reactivate the case.
Saudi Arabia however insists 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.
According to US and Turkish officials, a waiting Saudi hit squad strangled him and dismembered his body, which has never been retrieved.
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.
But Erdogan has never directly blamed Prince Mohammed and there have in recent months been signs of a thaw between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
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.