ISTANBUL— Turkey pressed on with its demands for a full accounting from Saudi Arabia for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi early last month– dismissing a Saudi prosecutor’s indictments Thursday as an attempt to cover up the murder.
Turkey also rejected a reported White House plan to expel Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher, from the United States in exchange for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan easing the pressure for a full investigation.
The U.S. aim appears to be to protect Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who’s been widely viewed as the likely source of the order to kill the Washington Post columnist.
The Turkish rejection of the reported U.S. bid was both swift and blunt.
“At no point did Turkey offer to hold back on the Khashoggi investigation in return for Fethullah Gulen’s extradition,” a senior Turkish official said Thursday night. Turkey’s request for Gulen’s extradition n and the investigation into the Khashoggi murder “are two separate issues. They are not connected in any way, shape or form.”
Erdogan has sought Gulen’s extradition for more than two years, blaming the reclusive cleric for the failed coup of July 15, 2016 that cost the lives of more than 200. Gulen, a one-time Erdogan ally who preaches a moderate version of Islam, has a large following in Turkey and abroad, and Erdogan has labeled his Hismet (Service) movement the “Fethullah Gülen Terror Organization” or FETO, for short.
“We have no intention to intervene in the Khashoggi investigation in return for any political or legal favor,” the senior official said. “We want to see action on the part of the United States in terms of the extradition of Gülen. And we’re going to continue our investigation on behalf of the Khashoggi case.”
Khashoggi, 59, walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, seeking papers that would allow him to marry Hatice Cengiz, 36, a Turkish PhD student,, but he never emerged. Saudi authorities first denied that Khashoggi was dead, but later acknowledged that a hit team had been dispatched from the oil-rich kingdom to persuade the journalist to return to his home country and killed him when he refused to go voluntarily.
The Saudi chief prosecutor said Thursday that members of the 15-member team injected Khashoggi with an overdose of an unnamed drug, causing his death. They then dismembered the body and transferred the remains outside of the consulate building to a still unidentified “collaborator.”
The prosecutor is seeking the death sentence for five Saudi officials who were on the government’s team.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubair told reporters in Riyadh that Khashoggi’s murder was a “very big mistake” but said Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had “absolutely nothing to do” with it.
Turkish officials, who have leaked many of the details of the lurid murder over the past six weeks, were skeptical of the Saudi prosecutor’s story.
Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a televised speech Thursday that the Saudi statement was “insufficient” and the murder had been “premeditated.”
“We find all those steps positive but insufficient,” he said. “Dismembering a body is not something that can happen spontaneously. They brought the necessary tools to kill him and dismember him.”
Yasin Aktay, an advisor to Erdogan, spoke of the Saudi statement as a cover-up. “They expect us to believe the killers carried this out on their own. This isn’t very credible. Everything is clear as day, but there is an effort to cover it up a bit,” he said.
From the Turkish perspective, the official Saudi account is full of holes. The prosecutor did not identify the “local collaborator” nor did he say where Khashoggi’s remains had been taken. Turkish officials have said it’s possible that the Saudi hit team dissolved Khashoggi’s remains in a vat of acid.
And while the prosecutor stated that a member of the team disabled the security cameras within the consulate, he did not say when the decision was made. In addition, the Saudi prosecutor did not give the names of those he indicted, nor did he specify the charges against those five for whom he has recommended the death sentence. Then there’s the question why the team included an autopsy expert if the objective of the team had not been to kill Khashoggi all along.
The very idea of trying to exchange Gülen for an easing up of the Turkish investigation might be attractive in Washington for solving a big international political problem, namely that the Trump administration does not want to see the toppling of the Saudi Crown Prince, who is a central player in the broader U.S. Middle East policy.
But for Erdogan, who has repeatedly pledged to get to the bottom of the Khashoggi murder, it would mean a severe loss of credibility, a yielding of the moral high ground he has seized and thus far defended and a caving to his main rival for leadership of the Muslim world, Mohammed bin Salman, often known by his initials MBS.
At the same time, the notion the United States might be willing to extradite or expel Gülen could stir controversy in the U.S. by undercutting the credibility of the U.S. system of justice. Those who have studied the Turkish request for Gülen’s extradition say that it is weakly constructed without sufficient hard evidence, and if it went before a judge under the normal judicial procedure, it would be rejected. For this reason, two administrations have refused to push for it – up to now.
The White House plan to expel Gülen was reported by NBC news Thursday, and the quick Turkish official reaction suggested that it had been broached to Turkish officials previously. NBC said the administration last month asked law enforcement agencies to examine legal ways of removing Gülen from the United States, where he has lived in self-imposed exile since 1999.
Law enforcement officials reportedly were incensed that the President Donald Trump would attempt to circumvent the U.S. justice system just to cover up a crime that many officials in the U.S. and Turkey are convinced could only have been authorized by MBS.
U.S. relations with Turkey have been deeply strained for the past five years, growing out of the U.S. decision to rely on a controversial Kurdish militia as the ground force to fight Islamic State extremists in Syria. Turkey regards the People’s Protection Units as the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, which seeks to carve a Kurdish state out of Turkish, Syrian and Iranian territory.
Some strains have eased in the past two months, particularly after a Turkish court Oct. 12 released the Rev. Andrew Brunson, a protestant cleric who’d been held on flimsy charges of supporting terrorist groups including the Gülenists and the YPG. In that instance, Erdogan offered to negotiate the release of Brunson for Gülen.
“You have another pastor in your hands,” Erdogan said on Sept. 28, 2017, referring to Gulen. “Give us that pastor and we will see what we can do in the judiciary to give you this one.”
Angered over Brunson’s detention for two years and the lack of due process, President Trump announced economic sanctions against Turkey in August, which drove the economy into a tailspin and sent the value of the Turkish currency plummeting. But since Brunson was released, the lira has regained much of its lost value, and there’s not much talk any more of an economic crisis here.
Meanwhile, the U.S. made at least one other major concession to Turkey, when it announced last week that it was offering a total of $12 million in bounties for the capture of the leadership of the PKK.
By all appearances, American officials failed to explain the timing of the concession in advance, and Turkish officials up to the level of the presidential spokesman expressed surprise and doubts about U.S. intentions. Now it will be difficult for the U.S. to duck questions about whether the introduction of the PKK bounties was also intended as part of a deal with Turkey to pull back on its vigorous public campaign to get to the bottom of the Khashoggi murder.