As Saudi Arabia faced intensifying international skepticism over its story about the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a senior government official laid out a new version of the death inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul that in key respects contradicts previous explanations.
The latest account, provided by a Saudi official who requested anonymity, includes details on how the team of 15 Saudi nationals sent to confront Khashoggi on Oct. 2 had threatened him with being drugged and kidnapped and then killed him in a chokehold when he resisted.
A member of the team then dressed in Khashoggi’s clothes to make it appear as if he had left the consulate.
After denying any involvement in the disappearance of Khashoggi, 59, for two weeks, Saudi Arabia on Saturday morning said he had died in a fistfight at the consulate. An hour later, another Saudi official attributed the death to a chokehold, which the senior official reiterated.
Turkish officials suspect the body of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was cut up but the Saudi official said it was rolled up in a rug and given to a “local cooperator” for disposal.
Asked about allegations that Khashoggi had been tortured and beheaded, he said preliminary results of the investigation did not suggest that.
The Saudi official presented what he said were Saudi internal intelligence documents which appeared to show the initiative to bring back dissidents as well as the specific one involving Khashoggi. He also showed testimony from those involved in what he described as the 15-man team’s cover-up, and the initial results of an internal probe. He did not provide proof to substantiate the findings of the investigation and the other evidence.
This narrative is the latest Saudi account that has changed multiple times. The authorities initially dismissed reports that Khashoggi had gone missing inside the consulate as false and said he had left the building soon after entering. When the media reported a few days later that he had been killed there, they called the accusations “baseless.”
Asked by Reuters why the government’s version of Khashoggi’s death kept changing, the official said the government initial account was based on “false information reported internally at the time.”
“Once it became clear these initial mission reports were false, it launched an internal investigation and refrained from further public comment,” the official said, adding that the investigation is continuing.
Turkish sources say the authorities have an audio recording purportedly documenting Khashoggi’s murder inside the consulate but have not released it.
Riyadh dispatched a high-level delegation to Istanbul on Tuesday and ordered an internal investigation but U.S. President Donald Trump said on Saturday he is not satisfied with Saudi Arabia’s handling of Khashoggi’s death and said questions remain unanswered.
Germany and France on Saturday called Saudi Arabia’s explanation of how Khashoggi died incomplete.
According to the latest version of the death, the government wanted to convince Khashoggi, who moved to Washington a year ago fearing reprisals for his views, to return to the kingdom as part of a campaign to prevent Saudi dissidents from being recruited by the country’s enemies, the official said.
To that end, the official said, the deputy head of the General Intelligence Presidency, Ahmed al-Asiri, put together a 15-member team from the intelligence and security forces to go to Istanbul, meet Khashoggi at the consulate and try to convince him to return to Saudi Arabia.
“There is a standing order to negotiate the return of dissidents peacefully; which gives them the authority to act without going back to the leadership” the official said.
“Asiri is the one who formed the team and asked for an employee who worked with (Saud) al-Qahtani and who knew Jamal from the time they both worked at the embassy in London,” he said.
The official said Qahtani had signed off on one of his employees conducting the negotiations.