Saudi account of Khashoggi's death widely challenged

The main gate of Istanbul's Belgrad forest, which was searched by Turkish police. They believe the body of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi may have been disposed of there. Turkish officials have accused Riyadh of carrying out a state-sponsored killi
The main gate of Istanbul's Belgrad forest, which was searched by Turkish police. They believe the body of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi may have been disposed of there. Turkish officials have accused Riyadh of carrying out a state-sponsored killing and dismembering the body, with pro-government media in Turkey reporting the existence of video and audio evidence to back those claims.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

World powers demand greater clarity as Turkish police search forest in Istanbul for body of journalist

DUBAI/RIYADH • Saudi Arabia faced a growing chorus of incredulity yesterday over its belated explanation of how critic and journalist Jamal Khashoggi died inside its Istanbul consulate, as world powers demanded answers and information on the whereabouts of his body.

After a fortnight of denials, the Saudi authorities admitted on Saturday that the Washington Post columnist was killed after entering the consulate on Oct 2, a disappearance that sparked outrage and plunged the Gulf kingdom into a spiralling international crisis.

Turkish officials have accused Riyadh of carrying out a state-sponsored killing and dismembering the body, with pro-government media in Turkey reporting the existence of video and audio evidence to back those claims.

Police have searched a forest in Istanbul where they believe his body may have been disposed of.

After initially saying Mr Khashoggi had left the consulate unharmed, and then that they were investigating his disappearance, the Saudi authorities backtracked and admitted the 60-year-old was killed in a "brawl" with officials inside the consulate.

But that narrative - combined with the absence of Mr Khashoggi's body - quickly drew scepticism and scorn from many, including staunch allies.

Ankara vowed to reveal all the details of its own inquiry as United States President Donald Trump said he was unsatisfied with Saudi Arabia's response to the columnist's death, while the European Union, Germany, France, Britain, Australia, Canada and the United Nations also demanded greater clarity.

Yesterday, a senior government official told Reuters a new version of the death inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul that, in key respects, contradicts previous explanations.

The Saudi official, who requested anonymity, gave details of how the team of 15 Saudi nationals sent to confront Mr Khashoggi had threatened him with being drugged and kidnapped, and then killed him in a chokehold when he resisted.

A member of the team then dressed in Mr Khashoggi's clothes to make it appear as if he had left the consulate, according to this account.

And the Saudi official said the body was not cut up, but that it was rolled up in a rug and given to a "local cooperator" for disposal.

 
 
 

The controversy has put the kingdom - for decades a key ally in Western efforts to contain Iran - under unprecedented pressure. It has also evolved into a major crisis for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a Trump administration favourite widely known as MBS, whose image as a modernising Arab reformer has been gravely undermined.

Canada is among the latest countries to question Riyadh's version of events. "The explanations offered to date lack consistency and credibility," Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said in a statement on Saturday.

Senior US Republican Senator Marco Rubio was more stark in his assessment. "Saudi Arabia's changing stories on #KhashoggiMurder are getting old. The latest one about a fist fight gone bad is bizarre," he tweeted, renewing his call for sanctions against those responsible.

Saudi newspapers yesterday were branded with headlines of support for the kingdom's government.

Okaz's front page said "Justice continues... accountability is coming", while Al-Riyadh daily said there was a "wide welcome" of the government's "justice and firmness" in the case of Mr Khashoggi.

In the Saturday admission, Saudi Attorney-General Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb said 18 Saudis had been arrested and two top aides of Prince Mohammed sacked, together with three other intelligence agents.

Many in Saudi Arabia are standing with the 33-year-old Prince.

"It is difficult to do everything perfectly 100 per cent of the time," said human resource specialist Khalid Tamimy, 42, who was visiting the Riyadh Park mall with his wife and three young children. He said he was uncertain of the details of the Khashoggi case.

Saudi media presents a pro-government version of events dramatically at odds with what the rest of world's media is reporting.

A retired Western diplomat said that although the fallout of the Khashoggi case may damage the Prince's reputation abroad, many Saudis who enjoy a comfortable lifestyle driven by oil profits will probably continue to support Prince Mohammed.

"The average Saudi will say, 'I'm sorry, it shouldn't have happened, but neither should Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib - I'm not going to throw this all away for one journalist,'" he said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2018, with the headline 'Saudi account of Khashoggi's death widely challenged'. Print Edition | Subscribe