A Saudi man detained at Paris’s main airport and accused of involvement in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi was arrested in a case of mistaken identity, a security source has said.
The suspect, a 33-year-old carrying a passport that identified him as Khalid Al-Otaibi, was stopped while trying to board a plane bound for Riyadh at 9.20am on Tuesday when an Interpol red notice was triggered as he went through security.
The notice, which was issued by Turkey, identified Al-Otaibi as a former member of the Saudi royal guard accused of being part of the ‘hit squad’ that killed Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018.
But Saudi Arabia protested, saying Al-Otaibi is a common name and the man France was holding could not be the wanted Al-Otaibi because he is in jail in their country.
Khalid Al-Otaibi is a former member of the Saudi royal guard wanted over the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul (file image, Al-Otaibi in Istanbul airport before the killing)
French police believed they had arrested Al-Otaibi (file image of his passport) on Tuesday morning in Paris, but now suspect it was a case of mistaken identity
No official announcement has yet been made.
Twenty-six Saudis, including Al-Otaibi, are currently on trial in absentia in Istanbul over the killing which took place in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
Turkey began the trials in October last year, but none of the Saudis accused has yet faced court in person.
Alotaibi is also one of 17 people that the US Treasury designated for sanctions in 2018 over the murder.
Khashoggi, a former member of the Saudi royal family turned dissident, was a US citizen and working for the Washington Post as a columnist when he was killed.
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 authorising 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.
Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident journalist with links to the Saudi royals, was murdered in Istanbul in 2018 and 26 men are currently on trial in absentia in Turkey over his death
Khashoggi is seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on the day of his killing
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.
The journalist had once been close to the Saudi royal family but before his death had written critical pieces in the Washington Post about Mohammed bin Salman (pictured) and his policies
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 widow Hatice Cengiz, who was waiting outside the consulate while the murder took place, accused the US of failing to hold Saudi Arabia accountable.