ISTANBUL — It was two full weeks before Saudi officials allowed Turkish police to enter the consulate where journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared and reportedly was tortured and murdered Oct. 2. They made investigators wait another day before they could enter the home of the Saudi consul, Mohammad al-Otaibi, Turkish officials said.
By then, Otaibi had left for Saudi Arabia with his family.
The denial of access together with continuing failure by top Saudi officials to explain what happened have added to suspicions here that the alleged murder and gruesome dismemberment of Khashoggi was carried out under orders from the highest level, and his disappearance was in no sense, as U.S. President Donald Trump suggested, a “rogue operation.”
Turkish officials Thursday defended the delay inspecting the scene of the purported crime. The investigation “complies with international law and conventions in all aspects,” the Chief Public Prosecutor’s office in Istanbul said in defense of the by-the-book observance of the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.
“The consul general has immunity,” said Omer Celik, a spokesman for the ruling Justice and Development party. “It was not possible to prevent him from leaving.”
Meanwhile, however, new leaks from the Turkish authorities point to what could be a much wider cover-up.
On the day Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain papers needed for marriage, 15 Saudi officials flew into Istanbul in two charter aircraft and left the same night.
But some of the alleged Saudi hit team were filmed traveling through a district in Yalova province in northwestern Turkey, the Hurriyet Daily News reported, citing local news outlets.
According to Yeni Safak, a pro-government daily, investigators will be searching for Khashoggi’s remains in the Belgrade forest north of Istanbul and a farm house in neighboring Yalova. Termal, a spa district, is a popular destination for Arab tourists, Hurriyet said.
Meanwhile, according to Yeni Safak, Mashal Saad al Bostani, 31, a lieutenant in the Saudi Air Force and one of the 15 Saudis in the “hit squad,” as the Turks put it, died in a “suspicious car accident” in Riyadh.
Al Bostani had been recorded flying into Turkey Oct. 2, arriving at 1:45 a.m. He checked into a hotel close to the Saudi mission in the Levent business district of Istanbul, and was inside the consulate when Khashoggi arrived. He then flew off at 9:46 p.m. that night. The newspaper gave no further details.
Hurriyet columnist Abdulkader Selvi predicted that Consul al-Otaibi would be the “next execution.” He charged that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman “would do anything to get rid of the evidence.”
In recordings reportedly obtained by Turkish police from inside the consulate on Oct. 2, al Otaibi is heard saying: “Do it somewhere else outside, or I will be in trouble.” Another voice is then heard telling him: “Shut up if you want to live when you’re back in Saudi Arabia.”
Although the authorities have not publicly confirmed the existence of this or other recordings, they have not challenged their authenticity.
Still, the most salient sign of a possible cover-up is the refusal to provide access. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Bloomberg news just days after Khashoggi’s disappearance that Turkish police could have access to the consulate.
But in fact they weren’t allowed to enter until this past Tuesday, according to the prosecutor’s statement Thursday. They entered at about 4 p.m., but to the intense annoyance of Turkish officials, were not allowed into the residence until the following day. “Unfortunately, the search of the residence did not happen last night,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara after talks with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Wednesday. “The Saudis claim that his [al-Otaibi’s] family was inside,” he said.
The search of the residence began Wednesday shortly before 5 p.m. and lasted nine hours. Afterwards, police went back to the consulate.
There was no official word on what they turned up. But Abdulhamit Gul, the Turkish justice minister, said Thursday that police are investigating “deeply, successfully,” and the results will come out “soon.”