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Saudi Arabia struggles to turn page on Khashoggi's murder

But analysts say the murder stain will be hard to wash off, especially as a government crackdown on state critics continues two years after the killing.

FILE: Journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a contributor to 'The Washington Post', who vanished on 2 October 2018 during a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Picture: AFP

RIYADH - Saudi Arabia sought to turn the page on a journalist's murder with a final court ruling, but observers say the damaging scandal that sparked global revulsion will continue to haunt the kingdom.

The global fallout over Jamal Khashoggi's 2018 murder tarnished the reputation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, casting a shadow on his ambitious reforms, putting the kingdom's human rights record under the scanner and testing old alliances with Western powers.

Saudi Arabia aimed to draw a line under the case on Monday, with a local court overturning five death sentences in its final ruling and handing jail terms of up to 20 years to eight unnamed defendants after secretive legal proceedings.

But analysts say the murder stain will be hard to wash off, especially as a government crackdown on state critics continues two years after the killing.

"Justice is served," screamed a front-page headline in the pro-government Okaz newspaper on Tuesday.

But for global campaigners, the ruling, which came after Khashoggi's sons paved the way for a less severe punishment after they "pardoned" the killers, is nothing but a travesty of justice.

"I do not believe the verdict and the sentences will draw a bright line under the Khashoggi case," Hussein Ibish, a scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told AFP.

"It does not appear to the outside world that justice has been served. The Saudis may be haunted by this for a long time."

DOWNGRADED PUNISHMENT

Saudi Arabia, beset by low crude prices and gearing up to be the first Arab nation to host a G20 summit in November, is seeking to reboot its international image.

Riyadh has described the murder as a "rogue" operation, but both the CIA and a UN special rapporteur have directly linked Prince Mohammed to the killing, a charge the kingdom denies.

Particularly galling for campaigners is that senior officials implicated in the killing were exonerated, including two former top aides to the crown prince -- deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri and the royal court's media czar Saud al-Qahtani.

The government has appeared careful not to punish loyalist officials, a move that analysts say could have dangerously backfired as they only appeared to be following orders.

"By downgrading the (punishment), it appears that Prince Mohammed and the Saudi state feel more confident that the world is losing interest in the Khashoggi case," said Bessma Momani, a professor at Canada's University of Waterloo.

"The lessened charges also somewhat help restore Saudi intelligence officers' confidence in that the state has their backs when knowledge of their operations is exposed."

Even as global outrage over the killing dissipates, Prince Mohammed will struggle to rehabilitate his international image as a self-styled reformer, analysts say.

Before the murder, the crown prince had marketed himself in PR-slicked campaigns as a liberaliser seeking to remake his conservative petro-state.

'POSITIVE BRAND'

Still, the prince is pushing to jumpstart foreign investment after observers said the scandal impeded his reforms and mega projects that are aimed at steering the economy away from oil.

Global bankers and executives returned to a glitzy Davos-style investor conference in 2019 after a boycott in the previous year over the killing.

But the murder has increased the reputational risk for Western firms doing business in Saudi Arabia.

"Saudi rulers have learned that having a positive country brand can be important to advance goals like attracting foreign investment and signing business deals with the West," said Momani.

Since the killing, the kingdom has pushed to improve its much-criticised human rights record with a slew of reforms.

The government recently moved to abolish court-ordered floggings and end the death penalty for crimes committed by minors.

But casting a pall on those endeavours is an intensifying crackdown on domestic dissent. A string of Saudi citns overseas have also reported attempts by the state to intimidate or silence them.

Saad Aljabri, a former intelligence czar exiled in Canada, claimed in a recent lawsuit that a Saudi hit team was sent after him just two weeks after members of the same squad murdered Khashoggi.

"It does still seem that Saudi citizens, both at home and especially overseas, remain very vulnerable to intimidation, arrest and potential harm" by the state, said Ibish.

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