Five people were sentenced to death Monday over Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi's murder, but two top aides to the powerful crown prince were exonerated as authorities said the killing was not premeditated.
Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor, was murdered in October last year in what Riyadh called a "rogue" operation, tipping it into one of its worst diplomatic crises and tarnishing the reputation of de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The verdict underscores an effort to draw a line under the crisis as the kingdom, widely condemned over its human rights record, seeks to reboot its international image ahead of next year's G20 summit in Riyadh.
"The public prosecution's investigation showed that the killing was not premeditated at the start of this mission" but rather that it occurred in the heat of the moment, Saudi deputy prosecutor Shalaan al-Shalaan told a press conference.
Khashoggi, a 59-year-old Saudi insider-turned-critic, was strangled and his body cut into pieces by a 15-man Saudi squad inside the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul, according to Turkish officials. His remains have not been found.
Of the 11 unnamed individuals indicted in the case, five were sentenced to death, three face jail terms totalling 24 years, and the others were acquitted, Shalaan said. The verdict can be appealed.
Saudi prosecutors had said deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri oversaw Khashoggi's killing and that he was advised by the royal court's media czar Saud al-Qahtani.
However, Qahtani was investigated but not indicted "due to insufficient evidence" and Assiri was investigated and charged but eventually acquitted on the same grounds, Shalaan added.
Both aides were part of Prince Mohammed's tight-knit inner circle and were formally sacked over the killing, but only Assiri appeared in the court hearings, according to Western sources.
Both the CIA and a UN special envoy have directly linked Prince Mohammed to the killing, a charge the kingdom denies.
"If the court ruling is meant to put the Khashoggi affair to rest, it is unlikely to succeed," H.A. Hellyer, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told AFP.
"There is a strong belief among much of the international community that the senior Saudi establishment was behind the killing of Khashoggi and this verdict does not inspire confidence that accountability has been achieved."
Qahtani, who led fiery social media campaigns against critics of the kingdom and was seen as a conduit to the crown prince, has not appeared publicly since the murder and his whereabouts are a subject of fevered speculation.
Maher Mutreb, an intelligence operative who frequently travelled with the crown prince on foreign tours, forensic expert Salah al-Tubaigy and Fahad al-Balawi, a member of the Saudi royal guard, were among the 11 on trial, sources have told AFP.
It was unclear if they were among those sentenced to death.
The sources said that many of those accused defended themselves in court by saying they were carrying out orders by Assiri, describing him as the "ringleader" of the operation.
Mohammed al-Otaibi, the Saudi consul in Istanbul at the time of the murder, was not present in the room where he was killed and was released after questioning, Shalaan said.
The Riyadh court hearing the case held a total of nine sessions attended by representatives of the international community as well as Khashoggi's family, Shahlan added.
"The verdict gives Saudi authorities the chance to claim 'justice has been served' as they are keen to move beyond the Khashoggi murder before next year's G20 summit," Quentin de Pimodan, a Saudi expert at the Greece-based Research Institute for European and American Studies, told AFP.
"But that is unlikely especially after an untransparent investigation and trial carried out by a judiciary that is far from independent."
Diplomats from the UN Security Council's permanent members –- Britain, China, France, Russia and the US –- as well as Turkey were allowed to attend as observers of the Saudi legal proceedings that were held entirely in Arabic.
They were not allowed to bring interpreters and are usually summoned at short notice, Western sources say.
The Khashoggi murder rattled the world at a time when Saudi Arabia and its de facto leader, Prince Mohammed, were pushing an aggressive public relations campaign to rebrand the ultraconservative kingdom as a modern state.
Saudi Arabia will be the first Arab nation to host world leaders for the G20 summit, which will be held in Riyadh next November 21-22.
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia | AFP