The United States has imposed economic sanctions on 17 Saudis involved in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, including top aides of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The US Treasury Department declared the sanctions on Thursday after Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor announced that five officials face a possible death sentence in the case but exonerated bin Salman, also known as MBS.
“These individuals who targeted and brutally killed a journalist who resided and worked in the United States must face consequences for their actions,” US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in a statement.
The sanctions were the first concrete response by the administration of President Donald Trump to Khashoggi’s death in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in October 2.
Among those sanctioned were Saud al-Qahtani, who has been removed from his position as a top aide to MBS, as well as the Saudi Consul General Mohammad al-Otaibi and members of a 15-person team Turkey has identified as being involved in Khashoggi’s death.
The sanctions limit access to the US financial system and freeze people’s assets. They will be implemented under an act which targets perpetrators of serious human rights abuses and corruption.
However, the sanctions do not affect America’s lucrative arms sales to Saudi Arabia that Trump has vowed to preserve.
The measure was unusual for Washington, which rarely imposes sanctions on Saudi nationals. The sanctions do not target the Riyadh government, an important US security and economic ally.
The US government did not impose sanctions on Saudi officials over the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens.
US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said there could be further penalties against Riyadh.
Canada, which had a major diplomatic dispute with Saudi Arabia this year over human rights, welcomed the US sanctions and said it was weighing similar action.
Khashoggi, a critic of Saudi policy, was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2. He was a US resident and columnist for The Washington Post newspaper.
The killing has triggered a political crisis in Saudi Arabia as well as tensions with Western allies.
Some members of the US Congress said that even with the sanctions the administration has not been tough enough, specifically in regard to the crown prince, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said the order for the operation came from the highest level of Saudi leadership but probably not King Salman, putting the spotlight instead on his 33-year-old heir.
“I remain concerned that the administration is enabling the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in its effort to protect Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from accountability,” said Democratic Senator Ben Cardin.
Saudi deputy public prosecutor and spokesman Shalaan al-Shalaan said Wednesday the reporter died by lethal injection after a struggle. He said Khashoggi’s body was dismembered, removed from the building and handed over to an unidentified “local cooperator.”
Saudi Arabia, after initially denying having any role in Khashoggi’s disappearance, reversed course and admitted that Saudi officials were responsible for the killing.
Turkey wants the 15-man team that it says killed the journalist to be tried there. Trump has suggested ultimate responsibility lies with MBS.
The Trump administration is exploring possible ways to remove US-based Turkish dissident Fethullah Gulen, a foe of Erdogan, to convince Turkey to ease pressure on Saudi Arabia over the killing of Khashoggi, NBC News reported on Thursday.
A White House official told Reuters the NBC story was “not accurate,” but did not elaborate.
Erdogan has long demanded that Washington extradite Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999. Ankara accuses him of masterminding a failed coup in 2016 against Erdogan.