ISTANBUL—Four days after he went missing, dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was reported by Turkish authorities Saturday to be still in the Saudi Arabian consulate and by multiple news organizations to have been killed at the mission and his body removed.
The conflicting accounts, which appeared almost simultaneously, added to the mystery of Khashoggi’s fate and whereabouts, which has gripped the journalistic community here and in Washington, where for the past year he has been a world views columnist for The Washington Post.
The Turkish police announced a formal investigation early Saturday evening, and in a rapid-fire set of announcements stated that Khashoggi had entered the building on Oct. 2 and “had not left the building since.” Another, more ominous revelation followed: that on the day Khashoggi entered the consulate, 15 Saudis, including several officials, flew to Istanbul and on two aircraft and visited the consulate while Khashoggi was inside. The Saudis later departed Turkey. Police gave no names, but the implication was Saudis had come to twist Khashoggis’ arm and perhaps urge him to return to Saudi Arabia, but failed.
Reuters, The Washington Post and others reported that Turkey believes Khashoggi, 59, was killed inside the consulate in a premeditated murder and the body was “subsequently moved out of the consulate.” Reuters reporters entered the consulate early Saturday evening and interviewed the consul-general. The agency quoted him as saying Saudi Arabia was helping search for Khashoggi and rejected any discussion of his abduction.
One conflict between the two accounts is that Turkish police, as quoted by the official Anadolu news agency, had Khashoggi still at the consulate Saturday, while Reuters said his body had been removed.
Adding to the confusion, the Reuters report was carried in the pro-government Daily Sabah, but not by the official Anadolu news agency.
At the red brick Saudi consular building, down a quiet residential street in Istanbul’s skyscraper-laden 4. Levent business district, police fences blocked the entrance to the Saudi mission, but there were no uniformed or even plainclothes police in sight, an unusual omission for any diplomatic mission, let alone a venue where friends of Khashoggi have demonstrated several days running. It seemed all the more strange to have no visible police presence if Khashoggi was murdered at this location.
Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in an interview Friday night said Turkish authorities were free to visit the building and enter the building and conduct a search.
“The premises are sovereign territory, but we will allow them to enter and search and do whatever they want to do,” he told Bloomberg news. “We have nothing to hide.”
Three was no sign that Turkish police had entered the building, nor that Khashoggi was about to emerge. And just three reporters were watching the entrances for signs of movement, which there were none.
Khashoggi, who has written a world view column in The Washington Post since last year, when he departed KSA, must have caused major political distress to the 33-year-old Crown Prince. MBS as he’s known, has undertaken some major social and economic reforms, but is walking a political tight-rope at home and doesn’t brook dissent.
Khashoggi has lavished praise on MBS’s reforms, such as allowing Saudi women to drive, but he’s been highly critical about the failure to introduce democratic accountability and denounced the “climate of fear and intimidation.”
Once the mysteries of Khashoggi’s disappearance and whereabouts are resolved, another question to be asked is why the Saudi authorities decided to seize him, hold him, possibly kill him, and then issue stories that the Turkish announcement indicated were false.
Khashoggi went into the mission to obtain marriage papers. He left his cell phones with his Turkish fiancé, Hatice—who asked reporters to use only her first name. She waited outside the building and raised the alarm when he never appeared. The consulate first issued a statement that Khashoggi had left the building a little over an hour after entering it.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry Thursday summoned Saudi ambassador Walid bin Abdulkarim for an explanation, but his comment to reporters afterwards now appear to be totally misleading. “We don’t have any information about him, we are probing it,” he said. And the consulate in Istanbul was even more opaque. “The consulate confirmed that it is carrying out follow-up procedures and coordination with the Turkish local authorities to uncover the circumstances of the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi after he left the consulate building,” said a statement on the official Saudi Press Agency.
But Ibrahim Kalin, the spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, immediately countered this. “According to the information we have, this person, who is a Saudi citizen, is still at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. We do not have information revealing the contrary.”
This sequence repeated itself Friday night when the crown prince spoke with editors from Bloomberg. He said Khashoggi had entered the consulate “and he got out after a few minutes or one hour. I’m not sure.”
MBS dodged the question whether Khashoggi was wanted in Saudi Arabia to answer charges. “Actually, we need to know where Jamal is first,” the crown prince replied. And he indicated that Khashoggi had not been spirited out of Turkey, but with a response that raised more questions than it answered. “If he’s in Saudi Arabia I would know that,” he said.