Wednesday 16 October 2019

Power games played as search for dismembered remains goes on in consulate back garden


U.S. President Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters
U.S. President Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters

Josie Ensor

The lurid details of Jamal Khashoggi's alleged killing released yesterday were perhaps the most shocking of a slow drip of revelations.

The saga surrounding the fate of Saudi Arabia's best-known journalist has played out in claims and counterclaims published in the world's media over the past two weeks, as both Turkey and Saudi Arabia struggle to control the narrative.

Since news of Mr Khashoggi's disappearance broke, journalists have had to rely on carefully controlled releases of information from Turkey - a country that has in recent years muzzled its free press - and Saudi Arabia, which has never enjoyed a free press.

The one fact that both countries can agree on is that Mr Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul at 1.14pm on October 2, leaving Hatice Cengiz, his Turkish fiancée, waiting outside.

Turkey gave Saudi Arabia a day to come up with an explanation; Riyadh was not forthcoming. The kingdom claimed the journalist met officials at the consulate and left shortly afterwards, saying they noted nothing out of the ordinary.

Ms Cengiz, who stood by the exit for more than four hours before raising the alarm, said that was impossible.

Just before midnight last Friday, three days after Mr Khashoggi was last seen, Reuters - quoting two unnamed Turkish police sources - claimed the journalist had been killed inside the consulate. In releasing the information, Turkey indicated it would not be dismissed so easily.

The next day, Saudi's consul general invited Reuters for a tour of the consulate - the alleged murder scene - in an attempt to appear transparent.

"We are worried about him," consul Mohammad al-Otaibi said as he opened various cabinets, telling the journalists "but look, he is not here."

It was only after this that the leaks to the press started coming thick and fast.

CCTV footage of Mr Khashoggi (60) entering the consulate was passed to 'The Washington Post', which had been publishing pieces by the dissident journalist.

Anonymous Turkish sources introduced the theory that the murder was premeditated and the kingdom had assembled a "hit squad" of 15 assassins, which travelled from Riyadh to Istanbul on the day of Mr Khashoggi's consular visit.

Online sleuths managed to identify the men: at least nine worked for the Saudi security services, military or other government ministries.

Among those was Salah Muhammed al-Tubaigy, president of the Saudi Fellowship of Forensic Pathology, who specialises in gathering DNA from crime scenes and dissecting bodies. He arrived in Istanbul early on October 2 and left at 11pm the same day.

He was joined by Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, a diplomat assigned to the Saudi Embassy in London in 2007. Records show he travelled extensively with the crown prince on foreign trips.

Images were also released of a convoy of black vans with diplomatic licence plates arriving shortly before 1pm and leaving at 3.08pm.

Turkish sources implied that members of the squad carried out parts of the journalist's body to the waiting cars and drove them to the consul-general's house a short distance away.

All this pointed to a premeditated murder, not simply the case of an interrogation gone wrong.

It was around this time that Turkey made it be known that they had audio of the killing, which they claimed was from an Apple smartwatch Mr Khashoggi was wearing.

However, experts later said it was more likely to have come from a bugging device that Ankara did not want to admit to having placed in the consulate.

US President Donald Trump, who has closely aligned himself with the bin Salman family, proposed the idea that the men were "rogue killers", a semi-plausible alternative that could allow the kingdom's rulers to distance themselves from the unfolding saga.

While the theory may seem improbable to those who have been following the story, it could still prove to be the only one to get the US and Saudi Arabia out of a tight spot. Neither is looking for a diplomatic confrontation and both have incentives to agree a version that absolves Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Recent developments, however, have made it increasingly difficult for the crown prince to deny involvement.

Yesterday, the recording of the killing was leaked to pro-government daily newspaper 'Yeni Safak', which decided not to publish the audio but detailed its graphic contents.

Mr Khashoggi is reportedly heard screaming as he has his fingers cut off one by one and there had been no attempt to first interrogate him.

At some point, Saudi's consul general enters the room and tells the men to leave or he will "get in trouble".

The latest reports are the most damning yet. It is unclear what either side's next move will be. Both have had to think about how the episode plays domestically and internationally. Turkey cannot afford to sever diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, but turning a blind eye to foreign countries carrying out assassinations on its soil would set a dangerous precedent.

While at first the Turkish leaks appeared chaotic and at times contradictory, they have become much more consistent and on-message.

"One can only imagine that the Turks' expectations of what Riyadh is going to do have changed," H A Hellyer, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council in London, told 'The New York Times'.

Last night, police were searching consul general Mr al-Otaibi's residence. Media reports have suggested they are likely to find Mr Khashoggi's severed head and dismembered body in its garden.

Irish Independent

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