Morning Brief

Saudi Khashoggi Verdict Contradicts U.N. Inquiry

Saudi Arabia sentenced five men to death for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but the move has been condemned by a U.N. investigator.

A man holds a poster of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a protest at Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 8.
A man holds a poster of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a protest at Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 8. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Saudi Arabia sentences five men to death for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi—but exonerates two senior officials, Algeria’s military chief dies amid an ongoing political crisis, and a Turkish delegation travels to Russia for Syria talks.

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Questions Remain After Saudi Sentences

In a secret trial, Saudi Arabia has sentenced five men to death and three men to prison over the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. But the Saudi court also exonerated two senior officials in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s inner circle—leading to condemnation from Turkey, human rights groups, and a U.N. investigator. The senior officials had been sanctioned by the United States.

The court directly contradicted the U.N. inquiry into Khashoggi’s murder released in June, which found that the killing was premeditated and carefully planned by Saudi officials. Agnès Callamard, the U.N. special rapporteur who authored the inquiry, called Monday’s verdict a “mockery” of justice. “The hit men are guilty, sentenced to death,” she said. “The masterminds not only walk free, they have barely been touched by the investigation and the trial.”

Lingering questions. The verdict means that Saudi Arabia will likely punish those who carried out the killing while shielding those who planned it, but questions remain over Mohammed bin Salman’s role in the murder or the cover up. (Saudi Arabia has denied that the crown prince was involved.) Turkey has accused Saudi Arabia of impeding the case. Others have called for an independent inquiry.

Washington reaction. While U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials have reacted to Monday’s verdict with anger, it isn’t likely to change Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the White House. U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly defended Mohammed bin Salman, and his administration has offered no comment on the sentences.

What We’re Following Today

Algeria’s military chief dies amid political crisis. The sudden death of Algerian military chief Lt. Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah could plunge the country into further political uncertainty after months of pro-democracy protests, which ousted President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in March and then calling for an overhaul of military elite. Gaid Salah’s death comes just over a week after a presidential election boycotted by protesters, who said it would preserve the status quo. Former Prime Minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune—backed by Gaid Salah—won and now faces a challenge, beginning with his own legitimacy.

Turkish delegation heads to Russia. A Turkish delegation traveled to Russia on Monday to discuss the situation in Syria, where Russian-backed airstrikes in Idlib province have reportedly forced tens of thousands to flee toward the Turkish border. Idlib is the last major part of Syria that remains under rebel control after more than eight years of civil war. (Turkey has backed the rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.) Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Sunday that the country cannot handle another wave of migration from Syria.

Iran bucks U.S. pressure with nuclear reactor. Iran revealed on Monday that it is redeveloping its Arak heavy water reactor, which does not breach the terms of the 2015 nuclear agreement but nonetheless shows that it is still expanding its nuclear sector. (Iran shut down the Arak reactor as part of the 2015 deal.) The move comes despite significant economic pressure from the United States. Last week, Japan offered to mediate between Tehran and Washington.

Keep an Eye On 

China’s influence in Central Asia. Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s largest economy, has embraced an economic partnership with China, which has expanded into the region with its Belt and Road Initiative in recent years. Its expanding presence is being met with skepticism by Russia, which has long kept Central Asia in its sphere of influence, Reid Standish writes in FP.

An oil spill in the Galápagos. A barge carrying hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel sank off the Galápagos Islands on Sunday, prompting an emergency cleanup operation in one of the world’s biggest eco-tourism sites. Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno said the accident is under control, though it highlights the vulnerability of the islands.

Israel’s Likud Party leadership. On Dec. 26, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces a leadership challenge from party colleague and rival Gideon Saar, a former education minister. Despite an impending corruption trial, Netanyahu is expected to hold on to the party’s top post. The prime minister’s stubborn refusal to stand aside is the only thing stopping Israel’s silent centrist majority from getting the government it wants, argues David Rosenberg in FP.

Northern Ireland’s unionists. For the first time in history, Northern Ireland’s unionists—those who want to remain part of the United Kingdom—make up a a minority of members elected to the U.K. Parliament from Northern Irish constituencies. As Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepares to take Britain out of the European Union, they’re also faced with an existenial crisis as calls for a united Ireland grow, Jon Tonge writes for FP.

Odds and Ends

Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris won’t hold a Christmas midnight mass for the first time in more than 200 years, with the 12th century church still under reconstruction after a devastating fire in April. (The full restoration will likely take many years.) The last time that Notre Dame missed a midnight mass was in 1802, during the French Revolution.

That’s it for today.

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Audrey Wilson is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @audreybwilson

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