An alleged member of the Saudi hit team dispatched to murder journalist Jamal Khashoggi has been arrested at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle International airport as he was about to board a flight to Riyadh.
French RTL radio cited unnamed officials as saying that Khaled Aedh al-Otaibi, a 33-year-old former Royal Guard of Saudi Arabia, was arrested on Tuesday morning on a Turkish Interpol warrant and will appear in court on Wednesday.
Late on Tuesday, the Saudi embassy in Paris issued a statement saying that media reports were incorrect and that the person who was arrested “has nothing to do with the case in question.”
“Therefore, the Kingdom’s embassy expects his immediate release,” the statement said.
Mr Otaibi’s detention and likely judicial appearance will mark the first time that anyone allegedly involved in the Washington Post columnist’s gruesome murder in 2018 is being held accountable in an international court.
Saudi authorities, who last year held a trial for the alleged killers that was widely dismissed as a sham, described the murder as a rogue operation initiated by confidantes and close advisers of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler.
However, US intelligence officials have alleged that Prince Mohammed likely ordered the killing. The Saudi government has denied any involvement by the crown prince and rejected the report’s findings.
After more than three years of efforts by the Saudi leadership to at first deny and then downplay the killing, the arrest could further damage the reputation of Prince Mohammed, frequently referred by the initials MBS.
“There is a rehabilitation of MBS; time has gone by and people are less outraged about the Khashoggi affair,” said Giorgio Cafiero, an analyst at Gulf State Analytics, a Washington consultancy. “But this does seem to be a reminder to MBS that this file is still open.”
Mr Otaibi is an alleged member of the Saudi kill team dispatched to Turkey to abduct, murder, and dismember Khashoggi. While he was arrested on a Turkish warrant, experts say that Mr Otaibi is also on US, European Union and United Nations wanted lists.
“I would be very surprised if this causes a diplomatic incident,” said Cinzia Banco, a scholar specialising in relations between Europe and the Gulf at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The Saudi leadership must know that all of those named in Turkey’s warrant are fair game in Europe and the US.”
Mr Otaibi was placed in judicial detention by border police at the airport. The alleged killer was traveling under his real name, RTL reported.
Under French law, a court must decide whether to honour the Turkish arrest and extradition request.
According to RTL, Mr Otaibi will appear before the public prosecutor’s office on Wednesday, where he will likely be placed into formal custody pending an extradition hearing.
Human rights advocates and Arab democracy activists who have taken up Khashoggi’s cause celebrated the arrest.
“France should try him for his crime, or extradite him to a country able and willing to genuinely investigate and prosecute him as well as the person who gave the order to murder Jamal,” tweeted Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancee.
The unexpected arrest puts pressure on Emmanuel Macron’s government, which is eager to sell advanced weapons to Gulf monarchies, including Saudi Arabia. Mr Macron met Prince Mohammed on Saturday in Jiddah for the final leg of a two-day Gulf tour.
But the development could also help Mr Macron, who has come under heavy criticism ahead of 2022 elections for meeting with Prince Mohammed.
“The whole profile of Macron is quite toxic politically,” said Ms Bianco. “With this arrest, he can claim that meeting MBS doesn’t mean brushing away what happened with Khashoggi.”