Saudi Arabia on Monday exonerated two former top aides to powerful crown prince Mohammed bin Salman over the gruesome murder of critic Jamal Khashoggi, citing insufficient evidence.
Deputy intelligence chief Ahmad al-Assiri and royal court media adviser Saud al-Qahtani, both part of prince Mohammed's inner circle, were sacked two weeks after the murder in the kingdom's Istanbul consulate in October 2018.
After a year of investigation and a subsequent closed-door trial, the criminal court on Monday sentenced five defendants to death and jailed three others.
Qahtani was investigated but not indicted however, while Assiri was charged but cleared, the prosecutor said.
The exoneration of the two key figures named in the case is a surprising turn of events, which analysts said would only fuel questions over who masterminded the killing.
The fact that two senior aides to the crown prince have walked free suggests "privileged treatment" and "double standards", Quentin de Pimodan, a Saudi expert at the Greece-based Research Institute for European and American Studies, told AFP.
Here are the profiles of the two figures:
Assiri, said to be in his 60s, was a high-ranking adviser close to the royal court and often attended prince Mohammed's closed-door meetings with visiting foreign dignitaries.
Before his promotion to deputy head of general intelligence in 2017, Assiri served as the spokesman for the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen, which has been battling Huthi rebels since 2015.
Fluent in French, English and Arabic, the hard-charging official developed a reputation for hassling journalists whose reports were not to his liking.
The Saudi daily Al-Hayat once described the general, who trained at the renowned French Saint-Cyr Military Academy, as the "best known Saudi pilot in the world".
Last year Britain apologised after an anti-war activist attempted to make a citizen's arrest of Assiri, over Saudi Arabia's role in the Yemen conflict, and threw an egg at him during a London visit.
Days before his sacking last year, the New York Times reported that Saudi Arabia would assign blame for Khashoggi's disappearance on Assiri to help deflect blame from the crown prince.
A key counsellor to prince Mohammed, Qahtani was a media adviser in the royal court.
He organised interviews with the prince for foreign journalists and also served as the head of the "Centre for Studies and Media Affairs", a unit operating inside the royal court.
Saudi sources say Qahtani, said to be in his 40s, steered social media propaganda campaigns against the kingdom's adversaries including Qatar and Iran.
With 1.3 million Twitter followers before his account was suspended a year ago for violating the platform's rules, the firebrand official was known for aggressively targeting dissenters and rivals.
Writing for the Washington Post early last year, Khashoggi alleged Qahtani maintained a "blacklist" of writers critical of the kingdom and was known to intimidate them.
In an off-record interview with Newsweek magazine -- posthumously published in October 2018 -- Khashoggi described Qahtani and another Saudi top official Turki al-Sheikh as "thuggish".
"People fear them. You challenge them, you might end up in prison, and that has happened," he was quoted as saying.
He called Qahtani the "most important man in media", saying he controlled the government's public relations activities.
A known loyalist to Saudi rulers, Qahtani tweeted in 2017: "I don't do anything from my own head without an order. I am an employee and executer to my king and my crown prince."