Riyadh confirms death of missing journalist, fires senior officials

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud ordered the formation of a committee to restructure the kingdom’s General Intelligence Presidency.
Sunday 21/10/2018
A member of security staff stands at the entrance of Saudi Arabia’s Consulate in Istanbul, on October 20. (Reuters)
Ongoing investigation. A member of security staff stands at the entrance of Saudi Arabia’s Consulate in Istanbul, on October 20. (Reuters)

LONDON - Saudi Arabia confirmed that journalist Jamal Khashoggi died in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, saying the death resulted from “a brawl” with Saudi officials, and committed to bringing those responsible to justice.

A total of 18 Saudi nationals, including a royal court adviser and members of the country’s intelligence service, were arrested in connection with the case, a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency said.

“Preliminary investigations conducted by the Public Prosecution showed that the suspects had travelled to Istanbul to meet with the citizen Jamal Khashoggi as there were indications of the possibility of his returning back to the country,” read the statement.

“Discussions took place with the citizen Jamal Khashoggi during his presence in the consulate of the kingdom in Istanbul by the suspects (that) did not go as required and developed in a negative way, leading to a fist fight. The brawl led to his death and their attempt to conceal and hide what happened.”

The statement added: “The Public Prosecution confirms that its investigations into this case are continuing with the (18) individuals, who are all Saudi nationals, in preparation for reaching all the facts and declaring them and to hold all those involved in this case accountable and bringing them to justice.”

Major-General Ahmed al-Assiri, who previously served as spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, was relieved of his position as deputy intelligence chief. Saudi Royal Court Adviser Saud al-Qahtani, who has been described as communications chief and has a Twitter following of more than 1.35 million people, was also sacked, an official Saudi statement said. The statement did not specify the two men’s legal standings.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud ordered the formation of a committee to restructure the kingdom’s General Intelligence Presidency.

An official source speaking to the Saudi daily Okaz newspaper said a cover-up involving individuals at the consulate had been revealed and that the investigation into the case was ongoing.

Ali Shihabi, founder of the Arabia Foundation in Washington, said Riyadh was slow in announcing preliminary conclusions due to a cover-up by intelligence officials.

“Part of the reason for firing so many top intelligence officials was due to the cover-up and slowness in conveying the full details of what happened to the leadership,” Shihabi wrote on Twitter.

He described the developments as “a huge shock to the Saudi leadership” and said that “a combination of confusion, lack of experience in such crisis management and a cover-up by the intelligence bureaucracy contributed to the initial Saudi response.”

Members of the US Congress expressed scepticism over the Saudi statement but US President Donald Trump said he thought the kingdom’s explanation was credible and that he wanted to speak with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz.

“Saudi Arabia has been a great ally but what happened is unacceptable,” Trump said. Regarding the Saudi arrests, he said: “It’s a big first step. It’s only a first step but it’s a big first step.”

A Saudi official familiar with the investigation told Reuters that Crown Prince Mohammed had no knowledge of the operation that resulted in Khashoggi’s death.

“There were no orders for them to kill him or even specifically kidnap him,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The official added that there was a standing order to return critics of the kingdom to Saudi Arabia.

“[Crown Prince Mohammed] had no knowledge of this specific operation and certainly did not order a kidnapping or murder of anybody. He will have been aware of the general instruction to tell people to come back,” the official said.

Saudi Arabia’s confirmation that Khashoggi, who was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, died in the building came after weeks of speculation over his fate.

Information leaked to Turkish media provided gory details on Khashoggi’s killing were viewed by some as an attempt by Ankara to use its government-friendly media to exert political pressure on Saudi Arabia and the United States to influence the direction of the investigation.

However, Turkey seemed careful not to further damage its ties with Saudi Arabia, which are strained due to factors such as Ankara’s siding with Qatar in its dispute with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party also has affinities with the Muslim Brotherhood, considered a terrorist organisation by Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, the Saudi investment conference known as “Davos in the Desert,” scheduled for October 23-25, was to go on despite many high-profile guests dropping out over Khashoggi’s disappearance.