Two top Saudi royal advisers have been linked to journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. One has been labeled the “ringleader” but questions are swirling over the absence of the other in the closed-door trial of 11 suspects, multiple sources told AFP.

Saudi prosecutors have said deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri oversaw the Washington Post columnist’s killing in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate last October and that he was advised by the royal court’s media czar Saud al-Qahtani.

Both aides were part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s tight-knit inner circle and have formally been sacked over the killing but only Assiri has appeared in the five court hearings since January, according to four Western officials privy to the information.

“Qahtani is not among the 11 facing trial,” one of the officials told AFP.

“What does his absence mean? Are the Saudis keen to protect him or discipline him separately? No one knows.”

The kingdom’s public prosecutor last November indicted 11 unnamed suspects, including five who could face the death penalty over the murder.

Diplomats from the UN Security Council’s permanent members – the US, Britain, France, China, Russia – as well as Turkey are allowed to attend as observers of the legal proceedings that are held entirely in Arabic.

They are not allowed to bring interpreters and are usually summoned at short notice, the sources said.

A representative of the Khashoggi family – which this month rejected reports of a settlement with the Saudi government – has attended at least one court session, they said.

Maher Mutreb, an intelligence operative who frequently traveled with the crown prince on foreign tours, forensic expert Salah al-Tubaigy and Fahad al-Balawi, a member of the Saudi royal guard, are among the 11 on trial who could face the death penalty, the officials said.

The defendants are allowed legal counsel.

Many of them have defended themselves in court by saying they were carrying out orders by Assiri, describing him as the “ringleader” of the operation, according to the officials.

The kingdom’s media ministry did not respond to AFP’s request for comment. The defendants’ lawyers could also not be reached.