DUBAI/ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor said on Thursday the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate this month was premeditated, reversing previous official statements that the killing was unintended.
The death of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of de facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has sparked global outrage and mushroomed into a crisis for the world’s top oil exporter and strategic ally of the West.
The Saudi disclosure came after CIA director Gina Haspel heard an audio recording of the killing during a fact-finding visit to Turkey this week.
The spy chief on Thursday briefed President Donald Trump on Turkey’s findings and her discussions, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo participated in the meeting, the State Department said.
Saudi officials initially denied having anything to do with Khashoggi’s disappearance after he entered the consulate on Oct. 2, before changing the official account to say an internal investigation suggested he was accidentally killed in a botched operation to return him to the kingdom.
On Thursday, Saudi state TV quoted the Saudi public prosecutor as saying the killing was premeditated, and that prosecutors were interrogating suspects on the basis of information provided by a joint Saudi-Turkish task force.
“Information from the Turkish side affirms that the suspects in Khashoggi’s case premeditated their crime,” said the statement carried by state TV.
Turkey and Western allies of Riyadh have voiced deep scepticism about Saudi explanations of the killing.
Turkish officials suspect Saudi agents killed Khashoggi, 59, inside the consulate and cut up his body. Turkish sources say authorities have an audio recording purportedly documenting the murder.
Pro-government Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak, citing the audio, has said his torturers cut off his fingers during an interrogation and later beheaded him.
The CIA’s Haspel heard an audio recording of Khashoggi’s death during a trip to Turkey this week, sources told Reuters. It was not clear what could be heard. Representatives for the CIA and Turkish intelligence declined to comment.
“We have shared with those who sought additional information some of the information and findings that the prosecutor has allowed us to share,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters, without giving details.
Among various versions of what happened to Khashoggi given by Riyadh, Saudi officials had said the columnist was either killed in a fight inside the consulate or died in a chokehold when he resisted being drugged and abducted.
A European security source who was briefed by people who listened to the audio said of the recording:
“There was an argument at the beginning, they insulted each other, it then developed. (Saudis said) ‘Let’s give a lesson to him’.”
Khashoggi did not appear to believe he was going to die, the source said.
How Western allies deal with Riyadh will hinge on the extent to which they believe responsibility for Khashoggi’s death lies directly with the prince and the Saudi authorities.
Saudi Arabia has detained 18 people and dismissed five senior government officials as part of the investigation into Khashoggi’s murder. Some were members of a 15-man hit team, many of them Saudi intelligence operatives, who flew into Istanbul hours before Khashoggi’s death, Turkish security sources say.
Turkish police were investigating water samples from a well at the consulate on Thursday after initially being denied access, broadcaster CNN Turk said.
King Salman, who has delegated the day-to-day running of Saudi Arabia to the crown prince, on Saturday ordered a restructuring of the general intelligence agency.
Saudi state news agency SPA said on Thursday that Prince Mohammed had presided over the first meeting of a committee to carry out that restructuring.
The prince promised on Wednesday the killers would be brought to justice, his first public comments on the matter.
Khashoggi’s eldest son, Salah, and his family arrived on Thursday in Washington on a flight from Saudi Arabia, according to two sources close to the family. One source said Salah Khashoggi holds dual U.S.-Saudi citizenship and had been under a travel ban.
This week he held a meeting at the al Yamama Palace in Riyadh in which he and other family members received condolences from King Salman and the crown prince.
A photograph of the meeting showed Salah staring coldly at the prince as the pair shook hands.
Dozens of people stood vigil outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Thursday to demand justice. Several carried cardboard images of his face and signs reading “Khashoggi’s friends”. One, his hands painted red, wore a mask depicting the face of Prince Mohammed.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has called Khashoggi’s murder a “savage killing” and demanded Riyadh punish those responsible, no matter how highly placed.
The king assured Russian President Vladimir Putin in a phone call on Thursday that the Saudi government was determined to hold the guilty parties accountable and make sure “they receive their punishment,” according to the official Saudi press agency.
Saudi Arabia is the lynchpin of a U.S.-backed regional bloc against Iran but the crisis has strained Riyadh’s relations with the West. Dozens of Western officials, bankers and executives shunned a big investment conference in Riyadh this week.
But striking a defiant tone, the crown prince told international investors at the three-day gathering on Wednesday that the furor would not derail the kingdom’s reform drive.
“We will prove to the world that the two governments (Saudi and Turkish) are cooperating to punish any criminal, any culprit, and at the end justice will prevail,” he said to applause.
Reporting by Asma Alsharif and Tuqa Khalid in Dubai; Ali Kucukgocmen and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; Humeyra Pamuk, Mark Hosenball, Jonathan Landay, and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Mark Heinrich and Alistair Bell; Editing by Nick Tattersall and James Dalgleish