Donald Trump's administration praised Saudi Arabia after officials sentenced five people to death and three more to jail in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
'This is an important step in holding those responsible for this terrible crime accountable, and we encourage Saudi Arabia to continue with a fair and transparent judicial process,' a senior administration official told DailyMail.com.
But the two most senior Saudi officials implicated in Khashoggi's death, including a former top adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who's the de facto ruler of the country, were cleared of wrongdoing.
Additionally, the court ruled Khashoggi's murder was not premeditated, which is the argument pushed by Prince Mohammed's government.
The verdict raises questions as to whether the courts punished those that carried out the killing while shielding those who ordered Khashoggi's death. A U.N. investigator of the journalist's murder called the ruling a 'mockery' of justice.
The kingdom continues to deny any involvement by Crown Prince Mohammed and his top aides. The CIA concluded MBS, the crown prince is known by his initials, ordered Khashoggi's killing.
Khashoggi, a Saudi national who lived in Virginia, was last seen on Oct. 2, 2018, when he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain the necessary documents to marry his Turkish fiance. He was never seen again.
The columnist for the Washington Post was a prominent critic of the crown prince.
Investigators found he was killed by a team of officials who flew in from Saudi Arabia.
His body was dismembered and his remains have never been found.
In addition to the five death sentences ordered by the Saudi court, three other people were found guilty of covering up the crime and were sentenced to a combined 24 years in prison, according to a statement read by the Saudi attorney general's office on state TV.
However, Saudi court dismissed charges against three others on trial, finding them not guilty, Saudi Deputy Public Prosecutor and spokesman Shalaan al-Shalaan said.
One of those three was Saud al-Qahtani, a top aide to MBS who was reportedly involved with attempts to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia.
In all, 11 people were put on trial in secretive proceedings in the capital Riyadh. The trial was closed to the public and independent media outlets. None of the defendants' names have been released.
Executions in the kingdom are carried out by beheading, sometimes in public. All the verdicts can be appealed.
Monday's ruling contradicts a United Nations-led investigation and Agnes Callamard, who investigated Khashoggi's killing for the U.N., called the verdict a 'mockery' of justice.
'The hit-men are guilty, sentenced to death. The masterminds not only walk free, they have barely been touched by the investigation and the trial. That is the antithesis of Justice. It is a mockery,' Callamard, the U.N. special rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, wrote on Twitter.
The U.N. investigation found that a team of 15 Saudi agents had flown to Turkey to meet Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
They included a forensic doctor, intelligence and security officers and individuals who worked for the crown prince's office, according to Callamard's independent investigation, whose report came out in February.
Turkish officials allege Khashoggi was killed and then dismembered with a bone saw.
The U.N.-led inquiry found the evidence pointed to 'a brutal and premeditated killing, planned and perpetrated' by Saudi officials.
The 101-page report included details from the audio Turkish authorities shared with Callamard. She reported hearing Saudi agents waiting for Khashoggi to arrive and one of them asking how they would carry out the body.
Not to worry, the doctor said. 'Joints will be separated. It is not a problem,' he said in the audio. 'If we take plastic bags and cut it into pieces, it will be finished. We will wrap each of them.'
Saudi Arabia initially offered shifting accounts about Khashoggi's disappearance. As international pressure mounted because of the Turkish leaks, the kingdom eventually settled on the explanation that he was killed by rogue officials in a brawl.
The kingdom said its team had flow in bring Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia alive.
Shalaan, the Saudi prosecutor, said that when the Saudi team that entered the consulate saw it would not be possible to transfer Khashoggi to a safe place to continue negotiating, they decided to kill him.
'It was agreed, in consultation between the head of the negotiating team and the culprits, to kill Jamal Khashoggi inside the consulate,' Shalaan said Monday in response to questions from journalists.
'The investigation showed that the killing was not premeditated ... The decision was taken at the spur of the moment,' Shalaan claimed.
He called it a 'snap decision.'
The journalist's murder caused a global uproar, tarnishing the crown prince's image.
Saudi officials say MBS had no role, although, in September, the crown prince, for the first time, indicated some personal accountability, saying 'it happened under my watch'.
'I take full responsibility as a leader in Saudi Arabia,' he told CBS' '60 Minutes' in September.
But he reiterated that he had no knowledge of the operation, saying he could not keep such close track of the country's millions of employees.
Last November the Saudi prosecutor said Saud al-Qahtani, a top aide to MBS, had discussed Khashoggi's activities before he entered the Saudi consulate with the team which went on to kill him.
Qahtani was known as MBS's 'fixer' and led the crackdown on critics of the crown prince.
The prosecutor had said Qahtani acted in coordination with deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Asiri, who he said had ordered Khashoggi's repatriation from Turkey and that the lead negotiator on the ground then decided to kill him.
Both men were dismissed from their positions but cleared of any wrong doing.
Noting the verdict, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stressed the need for 'an independent and impartial investigation into the murder', a spokesman said.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.