BEIRUT -- Saudi Arabia's public prosecutor said Thursday that new evidence indicated that the killing of dissident Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi had been "premeditated," signaling yet another shift in the kingdom's official story of his disappearance.
Khashoggi, a Virginia resident who wrote for The Washington Post, vanished at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
Since then, Saudi officials have said at various points that he left the facility alive and well after a short visit; that he was the target of a "rogue" operation by its intelligence service; and, as of Saturday, that he had been strangled accidentally in a fistfight that broke out as a team of Saudi agents sought to persuade him to return to the kingdom.
The new account was published Thursday in the Saudi-owned media and it acknowledged Turkish evidence of a planned assassination, which Turkish officials have been describing for weeks.
A statement by Saudi Attorney General Saud al-Mojeb said evidence of Turkish investigators "indicates that the suspects in the incident had committed their act with a premeditated intention."
It adds to the mounting political pressure on President Donald Trump's administration to punish the kingdom, whose de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been the White House's closest Arab ally and the driver of its strategies for the region.
The Saudi shift came after a visit to Ankara by Gina Haspel, the director of the CIA. She had been expected to receive access to an audio recording of the killing and other evidence that the Turks have said point to orders to kill Khashoggi from the upper levels of the Saudi royal family.
Sabah, a newspaper close to Turkey's intelligence agency, reported Wednesday that Turkish officials had given Haspel access to the recording and other evidence.
The Saudi announcement Thursday was an attempt to revise its previous public explanations before Washington received and digested evidence that would further discredit the kingdom, a person familiar with the Saudi strategy said.
It was unclear from the statement whether Saudi Arabia itself had concluded that the killing was premeditated. Nor was it clear what information the kingdom may have gleaned from the 18 Saudis it has arrested in connection with Khashoggi's death and the handful of senior officials who have lost jobs as a result of it.
Turkish officials have discounted the ability of Saudi Arabia to conduct a credible investigation, given suspicion that the royal court was behind the operation.
"We have maintained since the beginning that the Khashoggi murder was premeditated," a senior Turkish official said shortly after the Saudi announcement on Thursday. "We owe it to Jamal and his loved ones to uncover all of the truth. The criminal investigation continues in Turkey."
All of the kingdom's statements so far have sought to distance Prince Mohammed from responsibility for authorizing the killing, and the revision Thursday did nothing to implicate him. The crown prince has sought to project an image of business as usual, speaking to investors at a conference in Riyadh on Wednesday, and on Thursday presiding over the first meeting of a new committee responsible for restructuring the kingdom's intelligence services in the wake of Khashoggi's killing.
But many current and former Western officials with experience in Saudi Arabia have said they find it hard to believe that such an operation was launched without his consent.
The kingdom's shifting story came as one of Khashoggi's sons, Salah, a dual Saudi-American citizen who had been barred by Saudi authorities from leaving, departed the country for the United States, according to three friends of the family.
Salah Khashoggi's departure came two days after the Saudis released a video of him shaking hands with King Salman and Prince Mohammed, who gave him their condolences. The images caused a large backlash on social media by critics of the crown prince who suspect he ordered Khashoggi's killing.
It was not immediately clear why the Saudis changed course and allowed Khashoggi's son to travel. Friends of the family had suspected that Saudi authorities wanted to keep him in the kingdom to deter his relatives abroad from speaking out.
ARMS EMBARGO URGED
Saudi Arabia's previous explanations for Khashoggi's death were met with widespread skepticism from American lawmakers of both parties and several Western governments. Trump has called it "one of the worst in the history of cover-ups."
On Thursday, the European Union issued a fresh condemnation of Khashoggi's killing and reiterated its skepticism that it could have been carried out without Prince Mohammed's knowledge.
The European Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution Thursday urging an EU-wide arms embargo on Saudi Arabia in response. The resolution came several days after Germany became the first Western government to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the world's largest arms importer.
French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May both spoke by telephone with King Salman, according to a statement issued by the Saudi Foreign Ministry late Thursday, hours after the European Parliament's resolution passed.
According to an Elysee Palace readout of the conversation, Macron pressed his Saudi counterpart for more clarity on what happened to Khashoggi and told him France considers freedom of expression and freedom of the press an "essential priority."
But Britain and France have both stopped short of suspending arms sales to the desert kingdom.
According to Britain's Department of International Trade, Britain exported arms and equipment worth at least $1.4 billion to Saudi Arabia last year, but the real figure is probably higher. In 2017, potential French sales of more than $14.7 billion were approved.
On Thursday, the EU Parliament, an assembly of 751 elected officials from the 28 EU members states, rejected "the explanations provided so far by the Saudi authorities on the matter as lacking credibility."
The EU officials also cast the torture and killing of Khashoggi as an affront to European ideals.
His killing, the resolution read, is "part of a pattern of a widespread crackdown against prominent human rights defenders, women activists, lawyers, journalists, writers and bloggers" in Saudi Arabia after Prince Mohammed began assuming control of the country's security apparatus.
The statement also decried the fact that Saudi authorities "are seeking the death penalty for several of these activists" and lamented that "surveillance systems and other dual-use items have been used to track and trace the movements of human rights defenders."
The United States has already taken some steps toward punishing the suspects detained or fired by Saudi Arabia, revoking their visas.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he is working with the Treasury Department on whether to impose sanctions on those found responsible for the journalist's death.
But some U.S. allies, including Israel and the United Arab Emirates, are pressing the White House to stand by Prince Mohammed, a person familiar with White House deliberations said Thursday. Both countries argue that the crown prince can still contribute to the broad White House goals for the region, including isolating Iran and selling a peace agreement with Israel to the Palestinians.
REPORTS ON WELL
Earlier this week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey called Khashoggi's killing "premeditated murder" and asked a series of leading questions about who in Riyadh had ordered the operation.
Turkish officials have leaked several details that point to premeditation. Among them: One member of a Saudi team that flew to Istanbul before the killing was a doctor specializing in autopsies who would have had no clear role to play in an interrogation, or even a kidnapping. Another who resembled Khashoggi, dressed in his clothes and walked around Istanbul to create a false trail of security camera images that appeared to show he left the consulate alive.
Turkish officials have said that members of the team killed Khashoggi soon after he entered the consulate and dismembered his body with a bone saw, which they had brought with them.
The Turks have leaked to the news media the names of men on the Saudi team as well as photographs of them arriving at the airport and moving around Istanbul. Several have ties to Prince Mohammed. Saudi Arabia has released no evidence to support its evolving story of what happened.
Conflicting reports surfaced about whether Turkish investigators had searched a well in the garden of the Saudi diplomatic compound as part of their probe.
Investigators emptied the well and are awaiting the results of an analysis of the water to determine whether any human remains were dumped there, according to Yeni Safak, a pro-government Turkish newspaper. But the Sabah newspaper said Saudi Arabia had yet to give Turkish authorities permission for a search.
As the revelations mount, Turkey is pushing Saudi Arabia for more detail.
"Jamal Khashoggi's body still hasn't been found. Where is it?" Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said at a news conference with his Palestinian counterpart.
"There is a crime here, but there is also a humanitarian situation. The family wants to know and they want to perform their last duty," Cavusoglu said, referring to hopes for a burial.
Information for this article was contributed by Ben Hubbard and David D. Kirkpatrick of The New York Times; by Quentin Aries, James McAuley, Tamer El-Ghobashy and Kareem Fahim of The Washington Post; and by Aya Batrawy, Christopher Torchia, Suzan Fraser and Sarah El Deeb of The Associated Press.
Members of the European Parliament vote Thursday on a resolution rejecting Saudi Arabia’s explanations for what happened to journalist Jamal Khashoggi and criticizing its crackdown on human rights defenders.
A Section on 10/26/2018
Print Headline: Saudi: Death of journalist planned