ISTANBUL—Saudi operatives beat, drugged, killed and dismembered a dissident Saudi journalist in the presence of the kingdom’s top diplomat in Istanbul, Turkish officials said Tuesday, as Washington urged Riyadh to provide answers.
President Trump cautioned that Saudi Arabia should be considered innocent until proven guilty. His secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, on a visit to the kingdom, said Saudi leaders had “strongly denied” involvement and were conducting “a serious and credible investigation.”
The disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, a former royal insider, has strained U.S.-Saudi ties and sparked international outrage. He was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago. Saudi Arabia has denied any role in his disappearance.
Mr. Trump has put Saudi Arabia and its crown prince at the center of a Middle East policy aimed at challenging Iran, Riyadh’s main rival in the region, brokering an end to the Palestinian-Israeli crisis and countering extremism. Mr. Trump chose Saudi Arabia as the site of his first overseas presidential trip. The U.S. leader has emphasized the importance for U.S. jobs of the Saudi’s purchasing of billions of dollars of U.S. military hardware.
In an interview with the Associated Press Tuesday, Mr. Trump compared the allegations that Saudi agents had killed Mr. Khashoggi to the accusations of sexual misconduct against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was sworn in earlier this month after a bruising confirmation process. “Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent,” Mr. Trump said. “We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I’m concerned.”
Turkish officials said they shared evidence in recent days, including the details of an audio recording, with both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to support their conclusion that Mr. Khashoggi was killed at the hand of Saudi operatives. It wasn’t clear how Turkish officials had an audio recording.
The recording indicates how Mr. Khashoggi was killed in the office of the Saudi consul general, Mohammad al-Otaibi, minutes after he walked into the consulate building on Oct. 2, said people familiar with the matter. Mr. Khashoggi wasn’t interrogated, the people said. Instead, he was beaten up, drugged and killed by Saudi operatives who had flown in from Riyadh earlier in the day, the people said.
Then, on the recording, a voice can be heard inviting the consul to leave the room, the people familiar with the matter said. The voice of a man that Turkish authorities identified as Saudi forensic specialist Salah Al Tabiqi can be heard recommending other people present to listen to some music while he dismembered Mr. Khashoggi’s body, the people said.
Turkish investigators spent nine hours searching for clues inside the Saudi diplomatic premises on Monday and early Tuesday. Complicating the search, said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was the fact that some rooms had been freshly repainted. Tensions between Turkey and Saudi Arabia surfaced on Tuesday when Turkish investigators then sought to search the nearby consul’s residence.
In an unexpected development, Mr. Otaibi, the consul general, left Turkey for the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on Tuesday afternoon and Saudi authorities informed Ankara that the residence was off limits, according to the people familiar with the matter.
The latest Turkish allegations could complicate the Saudi government’s efforts to provide an explanation of what happened to him while distancing itself from any direct responsibility.
On Monday, Saudi authorities had weighed whether to declare that unauthorized operatives killed Mr. Khashoggi during a botched interrogation, according to people familiar with the situation. It wasn’t clear they was still considering that.
Mr. Pompeo on Tuesday held what U.S. officials described as candid and direct meetings with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir, urging them to resolve questions over the case.
“Learning what happened to Jamal Khashoggi is the primary purpose of this trip and is of great interest to [President Trump]. The secretary has made that clear in each of his meetings today,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement Tuesday.
Earlier Tuesday, Mr. Trump said that he spoke with Prince Mohammed on the phone and that the Saudi crown prince denied knowledge of what happened to Mr. Khashoggi.
“Just spoke with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia who totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish Consulate,” Mr. Trump said on Twitter. “He was with secretary of State Mike Pompeo during the call, and told me that he has already started, and will rapidly expand, a full and complete investigation into this matter.” The president added: “Answers will be forthcoming shortly.”
The tweet came a day after Mr. Trump said he spoke with King Salman, who similarly denied any knowledge of what happened to Mr. Khashoggi. After speaking to King Salman, Mr. Trump told reporters that “rogue killers” may have been involved in Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Mr. Trump on Monday said “rogue killers” may have been behind the journalist’s disappearance. The latest comments appeared to ease pressure on the kingdom after Mr. Trump repeatedly threatened Saudi Arabia with reprisals over the suspected killing of the journalist, calling it “really terrible” and “disgusting.”
Mr. Trump’s comments came amid calls from prominent U.S. lawmakers, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), to sanction Saudi Arabia over the suspected killing of Mr. Khashoggi.
President Trump said he talked with Saudi Arabia’s king and crown prince, who “firmly” denied any involvement in the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Photo: Getty
“Nothing happens in Saudi Arabia without MBS knowing about it,” said Mr. Graham, using shorthand for Prince Mohammed. “The MBS figure to me is toxic. He can never be a world leader on the world stage…This guy has got to go.”
A deal whereby Saudi authorities pinpoint the blame on rogue killers could help limit the diplomatic damage that has complicated efforts under Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s effective leader, to overhaul the kingdom’s economy and attract investment to the country. Top Western executives pulled out of Saudi Arabia’s premier business conference this week.
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday his objective was to “reach conclusive results” as to what happened to the Saudi journalist.
Under mounting international pressure, the kingdom launched its own probe to determine who is responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and has allowed Turkish investigators to inspect its consulate in Istanbul.
Mr. Khashoggi’s children in a statement late Monday called for an “impartial international commission to inquire into the circumstances of his death.”
Turkish officials say a team of alleged Saudi assassins apprehended and likely killed a Saudi journalist in Istanbul. The Saudis have denied any involvement but Jamal Khashoggi has not been seen since he entered the Saudi Consulate on Oct.2. Photo: Getty Images
Three of Mr. Khashoggi’s four adult children are U.S. citizens. The fourth, a son called Salah, is a Saudi citizen and lives in the kingdom.
After Mr. Khashoggi moved to the U.S. to live in self-imposed exile last year, the Saudi government barred Salah from leaving the country, according to people familiar with the matter. Before his disappearance, Mr. Khashoggi lobbied to have the ban lifted, to no avail.
The Saudi government didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Khashoggi was an insider who maintained close ties to some of the Kingdom’s most powerful princes even as he became known for his criticism of the Saudi government and sympathy for democratic movements.
The rise of Prince Mohammed, and the crackdown he oversaw against dissidents ranging from clerics to women’s rights activists, pitted Mr. Khashoggi against a ruling establishment that had long tolerated him, and ultimately he decided to leave for the U.S. last year.
— Margherita Stancati and Rebecca Ballhaus contributed to this article.
Source : WSJ