Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor announced on Thursday the government will seek the death penalty against five of the suspects charged in the slaying of Wall Street Journal contributor Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month. The Saudi government also provided its most detailed account to date of Khashoggi’s death.
Turkey, which has been strongly critical of Saudi Arabia’s response to the killing, described Thursday’s actions as “positive” but “insufficient.” The U.S. government on Thursday announced sanctions against 17 Saudis allegedly linked to Khashoggi’s murder.
The Wall Street Journal duly noted how the official Saudi account of the murder has changed over time, beginning with claims that Khashoggi did not die at the consulate and ending with the details released on Thursday:
Riyadh said the operation was ordered on Sept. 29 by Maj. Gen. Assiri, the then-deputy head of intelligence, who assembled a team tasked with returning Mr. Khashoggi to the kingdom. Mr. Khashoggi, who had been living in self-imposed exile in the U.S. since last year, was seen as a threat to national security.
The order was to return him voluntarily or by force, according to the spokesman for Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor. The team of 15 people included people in charge of logistics, intelligence and negotiations aimed at persuading Mr. Khashoggi to return.
Mr. Qahtani, the crown prince’s media adviser, was involved in coordinating possible negotiations with the journalist, the spokesman of the public prosecutor said, referring to him by his previous role. Mr. Qahtani is under investigation and banned from traveling outside the country.
Critics have long derided the Saudi contention that Khashoggi died unexpectedly when “negotiations” went poorly, or even that Khashoggi started a “brawl” and consulate officials accidentally killed him in self-defense, as they claimed a few weeks ago. The Saudi prosecutor on Thursday conceded the “team leader on the ground in Istanbul prepared for a possible execution” and admitted he included a forensics expert on the team to cover up the killing.
According to the new account from Saudi Arabia, this “team leader” decided Khashoggi could not be “persuaded to return” to Riyadh, so he ordered the journalist restrained and injected with a fatal overdose of tranquilizers. This would contradict rumors spread through Turkish media over the weekend that the notorious audio recording of Khashoggi’s death features the victim begging for his life as he was suffocated by a bag over his head.
The Saudi prosecutor statement on Thursday also included the first official admission that officials dismembered Khashoggi’s body and carefully disposed of it, as Turkish authorities have long alleged. Until now, the Saudis have insisted they gave Khashoggi’s intact body to a “local contractor” for disposal, implied they do not know what became of the remains, and refused to identify the contractor.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu responded to the Saudi prosecutor’s statement by declaring it “positive but insufficient.”
“I don’t find some comments satisfying. They say this person was killed because he resisted, whereas this murder was premeditated,” he said.
“It was not a momentary decision to dismember this body. It was preplanned. Necessary equipment was brought beforehand. It was planned how he will be killed and dismembered,” he insisted, rejecting the Saudi account of a snap decision made by the team leader.
“Where is the body of the murdered Khashoggi? Where was it thrown, where was it burned?” he asked.
Cavusoglu also repeated Turkey’s demand for the names of any Turkish nationals who assisted the Saudi executioners and called for all suspects in the case to be tried in Turkey.
Turkey is unlikely to be satisfied with the Saudi prosecutor’s conclusion that top officials such as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had no knowledge of the operation against Khashoggi, especially since the Saudis have not named the team leader who allegedly gave the kill order in Istanbul, or for that matter named the individuals who will be charged with capital offenses.
The Saudi prosecutor’s investigation implicates former deputy intelligence chief Major General Ahmed al-Assiri and Saud al-Qahtani, an advisor to Crown Prince Mohammed. Assiri is allegedly the official who gave an order to bring Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia on September 29, launching the operation that ended with the writer’s death. Qahtani was allegedly involved in planning Khashoggi’s “repatriation.”
Saudi sources have portrayed Assiri as the chief suspect in Khashoggi’s death for several weeks. The government fired both Assiri and Qahtani from their jobs last month. As the Wall Street Journal mentioned, Saudi Arabia banned Qahtani from travel and made him a subject of the prosecutor’s investigation, while Assiri’s status is more ambiguous. It is not clear if either man is among the 21 people Saudi Arabia claims to have detained, the 11 it has indicted, or the five it wishes to prosecute as death penalty cases.
The prosecutor’s report included charges that the team leader in Istanbul filed a false report to Assiri claiming Khashoggi left the consulate alive, purportedly explaining why such claims were the original Saudi response to his disappearance.
The U.S. Treasury Department on Thursday announced it has designated 17 Saudis for sanctions in connection with the “abhorrent killing” of Khashoggi. The Treasury Department noted these individuals “targeted and brutally killed a journalist who resided and worked in the United States.”
The Treasury Department joined Turkish officials in expressing skepticism that Khashoggi’s death was a spontaneous unplanned event. Crown Prince Mohammad’s adviser Saud al-Qahtani was among those designated for sanctions, but Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri was not.
Saudi Arabia’s Consul General Mohammed Alotaibi was listed for sanctions, as was Maher Mutreb, an aide to the crown prince caught on Turkish surveillance video entering the Istanbul consulate shortly before Khashoggi’s death. Reports claim Mutreb appears on the Khashoggi death recording asking a superior officer over the phone to “tell your boss” his mission was accomplished. The identity of the person he was speaking to and the “boss” he referenced are topics of great speculation.
Alotaibi was the chief diplomat in charge of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Another of the sanctioned individuals, Salah Tubaigy, is the much-discussed forensics expert who allegedly traveled to Istanbul with a bone saw to dispose of Khashoggi’s body.
Another man on the sanctions list, Meshal Saad al-Bostani, is a Saudi Royal Air Force officer who supposedly died in a suspicious car accident after the Khashoggi killing, according to Turkish media. Also named was Mustafa Almadani, the man who put on Khashoggi’s clothes and strolled around Istanbul to create the illusion Khashoggi was still alive. In general, the Treasury sanctions targets track closely with Turkey’s list of alleged “death squad” members.
The U.S. sanctions, applied under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Act and associated executive orders, will prevent the named individuals from accessing assets in America or engaging in transactions with Americans.
“The United States continues to diligently work to ascertain all of the facts and will hold accountable each of those we find responsible in order to achieve justice for Khashoggi’s fiancée, children, and the family he leaves behind,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
“The Government of Saudi Arabia must take appropriate steps to end any targeting of political dissidents or journalists,” Mnuchin added.