Updated at 3:30 p.m. ET
Saudi Arabia sentenced five people to death in the killing last year of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The court sentenced three others to prison terms adding up to 24 years, while exonerating two senior aides to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The trial was conducted in secret, and the defendants' names have not been released. The three people receiving prison sentences were found to have participated in covering up the crime. All the verdicts can be appealed.
The country's public prosecutor said its investigation found that Khashoggi's killing was not premeditated. That conclusion contradicts the findings of a U.N. investigator published earlier this year, which found that "Khashoggi has been the victim of a deliberate, premeditated execution, an extrajudicial killing for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible under international human rights law."
Khashoggi was a leading critic of the crown prince and was a U.S. resident who often wrote for The Washington Post. He was killed and his body dismembered shortly after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
A senior State Department official said on Monday that the verdicts are "an important step in holding those responsible for the terrible crime accountable."
"We've encouraged Saudi Arabia to undertake a fair and transparent judicial process and we will continue to do so," the official said. "We've urged the full accountability for Khashoggi's murder since day one. These verdicts are an important step in that process. This is a process, a Judicial process that continues. I know that there are some who would say it hasn't touched everybody responsible in the kingdom. We will continue to encourage transparency in that regard."
The official said the Khashoggi murder "awful," before adding, "Let's not lose sight of the fact 1,500 people were killed in recent weeks in Iran, according to Reuters. I'm not changing the subject. But there's a lot of atrocities around the world."
The U.N. report outlined how a 15-member team of Saudi agents had flown to Istanbul specifically to meet Khashoggi, including a forensic doctor and people who worked in the crown prince's office.
The report also included notes on recordings from the Saudi consulate provided by Turkish intelligence, which included this conversation between a Saudi intelligence agent and the forensic doctor:
"At 13:02, inside the Consulate, Mr. Mutreb and Dr. Tubaigy had a conversation just minutes before Mr. Khashoggi entered. Mr. Mutreb asked whether it will 'be possible to put the trunk in a bag?'
"Dr. Tubaigy replied 'No. Too heavy.' He expressed hope that it would 'be easy. Joints will be separated. It is not a problem. The body is heavy. First time I cut on the ground. If we take plastic bags and cut it into pieces, it will be finished. We will wrap each of them.'
His killing spurred international condemnation of the Saudi prince, who is widely thought to have been complicit.
The court's verdict was immediately criticized by human rights advocates, including Agnes Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur on extra-judicial executions.
"The execution of Jamal Khashoggi demanded an investigation into the chain of command to identify the masterminds, as well as those who incited, allowed or turned a blind eye to the murder, such as the Crown Prince. This was not investigated," Callamard tweeted in a thread where she described a number of problems with the verdict.
"Bottom line: the hit-men are guilty, sentenced to death," she wrote. "The masterminds not only walk free. They have barely been touched by the investigation and the trial. That is the antithesis of Justice. It is a mockery."
Amnesty International also decried the verdict, calling it a "whitewash which brings neither justice nor the truth."
"The verdict fails to address the Saudi authorities' involvement in this devastating crime or clarify the location of Jamal Khashoggi's remains," the group said in a statement. "Saudi Arabia's courts routinely deny defendants access to lawyers and condemn people to death following grossly unfair trials. Given the lack of transparency from the Saudi authorities, and in the absence of an independent judiciary, only an international, independent and impartial investigation can serve justice for Jamal Khashoggi."