Khashoggi killing: Officials deny Bin Salman's involvement as calls mount for international probe

AFP Paris, France Oct 20, 2018, 09.43 PM(IST)

File Photo: A demonstrator holds a picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a protest in front of Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Photograph:( Reuters )

Saudi Arabia admitted on Saturday that critic Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside its Istanbul consulate, but mystery surrounded the whereabouts of his body as Turkey kept up its investigation.

Amid mounting calls for an international probe into the death of the Washington Post journalist, Ankara vowed it would reveal all the details of its two-week inquiry.

Before dawn on Saturday, Riyadh announced that Khashoggi died during a "brawl" inside the consulate on October 2. Eighteen Saudis have been arrested in connection with his death and two top aides of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as well as three other intelligence agents, have been sacked.

A critic of the Gulf kingdom's powerful heir apparent, Khashoggi's disappearance had been shrouded in mystery and the growing international pressure has tipped Saudi Arabia into an international crisis.

Turkish officials have accused it of carrying out a state-sponsored killing and dismembering the body, which police have begun hunting for in an Istanbul forest.

In the latest version of events from Riyadh, Saudi Attorney General Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb said Khashoggi died after talks at the consulate degenerated into a physical altercation. He did not disclose the whereabouts of the journalist's body.

US President Donald Trump said he found the latest explanation credible despite continued scepticism from some US lawmakers, including Republicans.

The Saudi king also ordered the setting up of a ministerial body under the chairmanship of the crown prince to restructure the kingdom's intelligence agency and "define its powers precisely", Saudi state media said.

Key members of the crown prince's inner circle, deputy intelligence chief Ahmad al-Assiri and royal court media adviser Saud al-Qahtani, were sacked. 

Saudi Arabia's Gulf ally, the United Arab Emirates, welcomed the moves by the king, as did Egypt.

But Khashoggi's Turkish fiancee Hatice Cengiz tweeted that her heart was "full of sorrow" over the confirmation of his death. The couple had been due to marry this month.

Meanwhile, the UN chief, Britain's foreign ministry and media groups on Saturday called for the punishment of those who ordered and carried out Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi's killing in Istanbul.

International reaction on Khashoggi's death

UN

"The Secretary-General stresses the need for a prompt, thorough and transparent investigation into the circumstances of Mr Khashoggi's death and full accountability for those responsible," Antonio Guterres's office said in a statement.

Britain

"We send our condolences to Jamal Khashoggi’s family after this confirmation of his death. We are considering the Saudi report and our next steps. As the Foreign Secretary has said, this was a terrible act and those responsible must be held to account," the foreign ministry said.

Germany

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said those behind Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi's death must be brought to book and called for "transparency" from Riyadh.

"Those responsible must answer for their actions," Merkel and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in a joint statement. "We expect transparency from Saudi Arabia on the circumstances of his death."

Reporters Without Borders

"Any attempt to get rid of the pressure on Saudi Arabia and to accept a compromise policy would result in giving a 'license to kill' to a Kingdom that puts in jail, lashes, kidnaps and even kills journalists who dare to investigate and launch debates," Christophe Deloire, Secretary General of the Paris-based media rights watchdog tweeted.

Turk-Arab Media Association

The Istanbul-based body, of which Khashoggi was a member, said it wanted all those involved in the plot -- right up to the highest rung -- to be punished.

"We demand that not only the 18 men but those who commanded (the killing) are punished," said Turan Kislakci, the head of the association, speaking outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

UNESCO

"The killing of Jamal Khashoggi reminds us of the need to fight for press freedom, which is essential to democracy. Accountability for these crimes is non-negotiable. I urge the relevant authorities to conduct a thorough investigation into this crime and bring its perpetrators to justice," UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay said. 

Shielding crown prince

Meanwhile, the Saudi officials have roundly denied that King Salman's son, Prince Mohammed, had any involvement.

But one suspect identified by Turkey was said to be a frequent companion of the young heir to the throne, three others were linked to his security detail and a fifth is a high-level forensic specialist, according to The New York Times.

The decision to overhaul the intelligence apparatus and sack members of the crown prince's inner circle is designed to "distance the crown prince from the murder", said analysis firm Eurasia Group.

In Riyadh, preparations continued for an investment forum due to open on Tuesday despite high-profile international no-shows.

"I think that the transparency of the statement has made it clear that Saudi Arabia is a great and strong country and transparent in everything," said one Saudi citizen, Futayes Moqren, as he drank a coffee at a cafe.

In a recent off-the-record interview published posthumously by US magazine Newsweek, Khashoggi described the 33-year-old crown prince as "an old-fashioned tribal leader" but said he would have accepted an offer to work as his adviser.

"I'm not calling for the overthrow of the regime," the onetime royal insider said. "I'm just calling for reform of the regime."

Pro-government Turkish media have claimed that Khashoggi was tortured and decapitated by a Saudi hit squad, although Turkey has yet to release any official findings.

"Each successive narrative put out by the Saudis to explain what happened to Khashoggi has strained credulity," Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute in the United States, told AFP.

"Especially because the Saudis are still unable or unwilling to produce the one piece of evidence -- a body -- that could provide a definitive answer one way or the other."