Saudi Arabia has admitted the death of missing Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, claiming he died in a fistfight involving more than a dozen Saudi officials at the country’s consulate in Istanbul.
After 18 days in which it insisted it had no involvement in the journalist’s disappearance, Riyadh asserted that Khashoggi died as a result of the altercation after he had come to the consulate to obtain paperwork needed for his forthcoming wedding.
An announcement carried on Saudi state TV said discussions between Khashoggi and officials at the consulate quickly turned violent, and ended in his death. Those responsible then tried to cover it up, a Saudi statement said.
A source with close connections to the Saudi royal palace told CNN that, in the Saudis’ determination, Khashoggi’s cause of death was a chokehold or strangulation, but officials provided no evidence to support the conclusion. Turkish officials privately say Khashoggi was dismembered, but his remains have not yet been found.
Saudi Arabian authorities announced a purge of officials, the detention of 18 people and an overhaul of the intelligence services headed by the country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – whom US officials privately believe must have been aware of the operation to target Khashoggi.
The question is whether Riyadh’s final explanation for Khashoggi’s demise is enough for the international community to move on from the grisly episode.
US President Donald Trump indicated he believed it was credible, but emphasized that the US had not yet completed its review of the Saudi investigation.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was “deeply troubled” by the explanation, his spokesman said.
Some members of the US Congress, who have the power to force the administration’s hand on foreign policy, were derisive. “To say that I am skeptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr. Khashoggi is an understatement,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, said on Twitter.
The Saudi statement was the first official confirmation that Khashoggi died at the country’s consulate in Istanbul nearly three weeks ago, and the first acknowledgment by Saudi Arabia of its role in it.
Khashoggi disappeared after entering the building at about 1:15 p.m. on October 2 to obtain paperwork that would have allowed him to marry his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. She raised the alarm just before 5 p.m, while still waiting outside.
Turkish officials believe Khashoggi was killed soon after he arrived, and in the face of Saudi denials, leaked gory details of what they believed happened.
Saudi Arabia’s statement in the early hours of Saturday morning was the result of international pressure to explain Khashoggi’s disappearance, and came after Trump dispatched his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, to Riyadh to discuss the case.
According to the Saudi version of events, Khashoggi’s death was an accident, a result of a discussion that went awry. What happened next is less clear: the Saudi statement says the group of officials involved in the journalist’s death covered up the aftermath, but makes no mention of what happened to his body.
The fallout touches some of bin Salman’s inner circle. Five high-ranking officials have been removed from their posts, including the deputy head of the Saudi intelligence service. Bin Salman himself will lead a shakeup of the agency.
Trump’s first reaction
Trump called the official statement from Riyadh a “good first step” but added that some questions remained about the Saudis’ explanation and that talks would continue. Saudi Arabia had been a “great ally in the Middle East,” but that “what happened is unacceptable,” he added. Trump said he would work with Congress to develop a response to Khashoggi’s death, but said that he didn’t want sanctions to affect US arms sales to the kingdom.