Images of 'assassination squad' surface in case of missing Saudi journalist
U.S. President Donald Trump says he has spoken to the Saudis and is demanding answers
U.S. President Donald Trump demanded answers Wednesday from Saudi Arabia about the fate of a missing Saudi writer as lawmakers pushed for sanctions and a top Republican said the man was likely killed after entering a Saudi consulate in Turkey.
Trump said he didn't know what happened to Jamal Khashoggi and expressed hope that the 59-year-old writer, who went missing a week ago, was still alive. But senior members of Congress with access to U.S. intelligence reporting feared the worst.
More than 20 Republican and Democratic senators instructed Trump to order an investigation into Khashoggi's disappearance under legislation that authorizes the imposition of sanctions for perpetrators of extrajudicial killings, torture or other gross human rights violations.
Khashoggi, a former government insider who had been living in the U.S. in self-imposed exile, had gone to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to get paperwork he needed for his upcoming marriage while his Turkish fiancée waited outside.
Turkish media published images Wednesday of an alleged 15-member Saudi "assassination squad" and video of suspicious movements at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul following Khashoggi's disappearance a week ago, putting new pressure on the kingdom amid growing international concern for the journalist.
Saudi Arabia remained silent as the images, though not offering definitive proof about Khashoggi's fate, played across television networks in Turkey and around the world. Turkish officials fear the team killed Khashoggi, who wrote critically of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The kingdom dismisses the allegation as "baseless."
The Washington Post reported Wednesday evening that U.S. intelligence intercepts outlined a Saudi plan to detain Khashoggi. The Post, citing anonymous U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence, said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered an operation to lure Jamal Khashoggi from his home in Virginia to Saudi Arabia and then detain him.
Saudi Arabia has offered no evidence to support its contention that the writer left the consulate unharmed and vanished into Istanbul while his fiancée waited impatiently outside. Politicians in the United States, Riyadh's main ally, have warned that any harm done to the Washington Post contributor will jeopardize America's relations with the world's largest oil exporter.
State-run broadcaster TRT aired video purportedly showing the Saudis arriving by private jet and then leaving a hotel. The footage shows Khashoggi entering the consulate on Oct. 2. An hour and 54 minutes later, according to the time stamp, a black Mercedes Vito with diplomatic licence plates, which resembled a van parked outside of the consulate when the writer walked in, drives some two kilometres to the consul's home, where it parks inside a garage.
The footage all seemed to come from surveillance cameras, which would have been posted throughout the district housing the Saudi Consulate and other diplomatic missions. No one has produced any such footage of Khashoggi leaving the consulate.
Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper and other media alleged Wednesday that the Saudi Consulate's 28 local staff were given leave on Oct. 2 on grounds that a "diplomats' meeting" would be held there on that day. The reports did not cite a source and there was no official confirmation of the claim.
Turkey's private NTV news channel identified one member of the alleged 15-member assassination team as head of a Saudi forensic science agency. It alleged he may have been responsible for cleaning up any incriminating evidence. The station did not cite a source for its report.
Khashoggi had written a series of columns for the Washington Post that were critical of Saudi Arabia's assertive Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has led a widely publicized drive to reform the Sunni monarchy but has also presided over the arrests of activists and businessmen.
Turkish police have released images of a black van taken from laneway cameras as part of the search for Jamal Khashoggi:
Erdogan has not accused Saudi Arabia of being responsible for Khashoggi's disappearance but has said that if the Saudis have footage of him leaving the consulate, they should release it. Saudi Arabia is a major investor in Turkey, despite Ankara's support for the Gulf nation of Qatar, which is under a blockade led by Saudi Arabia and three other Arab nations.
Police and investigators in Turkey typically release video and information through state-run or otherwise government-friendly media outlets, as opposed to holding briefings like those common in Western countries.
On Wednesday, the Post published a column by Khashoggi's fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. She acknowledged the writer first visited the consulate on Sept. 28 "despite being somewhat concerned that he could be in danger." He later returned Oct. 2 after being promised needed paperwork so the two could be married.
'Shed light on Jamal's disappearance'
"At this time, I implore President Trump and first lady Melania Trump to help shed light on Jamal's disappearance," Cengiz wrote. "I also urge Saudi Arabia, especially King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to show the same level of sensitivity and release CCTV footage from the consulate."
She added: "Although this incident could potentially fuel a political crisis between the two nations, let us not lose sight of the human aspect of what happened."
Khashoggi had sought to become a U.S. citizen after living in self-imposed exile since last year, fearing repercussions for his criticism of the prince, Cengiz wrote.
Trump, who took his first overseas trip as U.S. president to the kingdom and whose son-in-law Jared Kushner has close ties to Prince Mohammed, told reporters today that he had spoken with the Saudis about what he called a "bad situation," but he did not disclose details of his conversations. He also said the U.S. was working "very closely" with Turkey, "and I think we'll get to the bottom of it."
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said national security adviser John Bolton and Kushner spoke Tuesday to Crown Prince Mohammed about Khashoggi. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo then had a follow-up call with the crown prince to reiterate the U.S. request for information and a thorough, transparent investigation.
Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hami Aksoy said Tuesday that Saudi authorities have notified Ankara that they were "open to cooperation" and would allow the consulate building to be searched. It's unclear when such a search would take place.
Embassies and consulates under the Vienna Convention are technically foreign soil and must be protected by host nations. Saudi Arabia may have agreed to the search in order to reassure its Western allies and the international community.
Watch Khashoggi speak to CBC's The National earlier this year about the issue of free speech and criticism of the Saudi regime: