Reports that the family of Saudi Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi could receive millions of dollars after his murder in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate focus attention on a specific aspect of Islamic law: "blood money" payments.
The Post reported Tuesday that Khashoggi's two sons and two daughters had already each been given homes and monthly payments of $10,000 or more. According to the newspaper, the payments were cleared late last year by King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud. One official described the handouts as an acknowledgment that “a big injustice has been done,” the report said.
In addition, the children could get tens of millions of dollars each as part of negotiations when the trials of his killers are wrapped up over the next few months, current and former Saudi officials and people close to the family told the Post.
The payments, which NBC News has not independently confirmed, are likely an attempt to use a "traditional approach" to mitigate the international fallout from the murder, said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Middle East fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Khashoggi's killing and the Saudi response triggered a wave of revulsion and anger that appears to have caught the kingdom's officials by surprise.
The government likely wants to make sure the family does not "puncture the narrative the Saudis have spent months trying to get a grip over," Ulrichsen said.
"The nightmare scenario for the Saudi government would have been the sight of Khashoggi's children in the U.S. speaking out and casting further doubt upon the Saudi attempt to set the record straight, after so many missteps at the beginning," he added.
Officials in Saudi Arabia at first denied the Washington Post contributor had gone missing in the consulate on Oct. 2. But after a series of embarrassing reports and revelations, they eventually admitted that Khashoggi's killing had been premeditated and pinned the blame on a rogue team — some of whom are known to have been close to the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
"It makes sense for them to accept the blood money and to live in peace.”
Meanwhile, the CIA has concluded that the crown prince — who had embarked on a worldwide charm offensive to publicize his sweeping economic and social reform program — ordered Khashoggi’s killing. These findings have been roundly rejected by the kingdom's officials.
The absolute monarchy is a longtime U.S. ally, but under President Donald Trump, King Salman and his son, the crown prince, have become linchpins of American policy in the region.
In November, the U.S. announced sanctions against 17 Saudi Arabian officials over the killing. The U.N. human rights office said 11 people are on trial, five of whom face the death penalty in cases shrouded in mystery. On Thursday, Agnes Callamard, an independent U.N. human rights expert, denounced the closed-door trials and called on the kingdom to name the defendants.
According to observers, the reported payments to Khashoggi's family are being cast as being part of Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of Islamic law, under which families have the right to demand the life of a perpetrator or blood money as redress for murder.
Under classical Shariah law, if the aggrieved party agrees to a payment for an accidental or intentional killing, it would have amounted to the equivalent of $80,000 in animals or gold or silver, according to Najam Haider, a professor of religion at Barnard College in New York City.
But if the idea of Sharia law is to impart justice, according to Haider, it's unclear that has been done.
"The responsibility is very clearly on one or two people and the justice should be imparted on those people," he said. "The purpose of this law is justice, and it is hard to see how justice is being done."
“We have no idea whether they were compelled to accept the money,” Haider said of Khashoggi's family. A longtime regime insider, Khashoggi became disenchanted with the powerful crown prince and left the kingdom in 2017 as the latter's power grew and the crackdown on dissent deepened.
Yahya Assiri, founder of the London-based rights group ALQST and a former member of the Royal Saudi Air Force, rejected the idea that these payments would in any way be part of a proper legal system. Instead, he said, they were a continuation of a long tradition of Saudi authorities throwing money at problems to try to make them go away.
“The Saudi Arabian regime believes they will solve issues by money. They can destroy Yemen and solve it by money,” he said, referring to the Saudi-led intervention in the neighboring country that has produced one of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
“They can kill someone and solve it by money,” he added. “This is dangerous. They want to silence the world by money."
Besides, the payments reportedly received by the family could not have been accepted willingly, as is required, Assiri said.
“The family is not free to forgive — they are under pressure,” he said.
Khashoggi's four children have remained relatively quiet in the wake of their father's killing, although daughters Noha and Razan Jamal published an affectionate tribute to their father in the Post on Nov. 23.
Omaima Al Najjar, a Saudi activist and writer living in exile in Italy, said that the blood money reports had triggered serious discussions among fellow Saudi dissidents.
“If you look back into the history of Saudi Arabia, when it fell into the hands of bin Abdulaziz — families who decided to stay in the area were given blood money to start a new page with the ruler,“ Al Najjar said, referring to King Salman’s father and the crown prince's grandfather, Abdulaziz ibn Saud, who founded the state in 1932.
The large amount of money was due in part to the status of the Khashoggi family, which had been close to the royal family for decades, she said. Still, al Najjar added, she did not see it as "morally wrong" for Khashoggi’s family to take payments or favors from the government.
"Let's be realistic: It is most likely that his body has been buried or dissolved in acid, so what's the point of continuing to fight?" she said. "It makes sense for them to accept the blood money and to live in peace.”