The missing Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Saudi Arabia admitted in a dead-of-night statement from a prosecutor early Saturday.
Saudi authorities released results from what they claimed was an initial investigation, saying that Khashoggi was killed after a discussion turned into a fight during his visit to the consulate.
A Saudi prosecutor also announced the arrests of 18 people linked to the death.
A Saudi official told HuffPost the suspects identified by the kingdom had said they handed Khashoggi’s body over to a local collaborator, who disposed of it.
Asked if he found the Saudi explanation for Khashoggi’s death credible, President Donald Trump responded Friday night: “I do. I do.” He called the arrests a “good first step,” The Associated Press reported.
“It’s a big step. There’s a lot of people involved,” Trump said at a roundtable with top defense contractors in Arizona, The Guardian reported. “Saudi Arabia has been a great ally, but what happened is unacceptable.” He called the death “horrible.” But Trump said that while he would support sanctions against the nation for Khashoggi’s death, he does not want to cancel or suspend billions of dollars in Saudi arms purchases from the United States.
The kingdom’s statement comes more than two weeks after the journalist was first reported missing on Oct. 2.
In response to the alleged findings, Saudi King Salman has dismissed Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri and Saud al-Qahtani, both advisers to the crown prince.
Intelligence gathered by the U.S. and allies ― in addition to clues pointing directly to the regime ― make it unlikely the statement will fully quell worldwide outrage over the kingdom’s treatment of Khashoggi and questions about whether the West is complicit in massive human rights violations.
Saudi Arabia and its powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, have faced a spiraling international crisis over the apparent murder. Reports this week have suggested that the kingdom would admit to a version of events that avoids directly implicating MBS.
The White House issued a statement from press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Friday night saying it “acknowledges” the Saudi account:
The United States acknowledges the announcement from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that its investigation into the fate of Jamal Khashoggi is progressing and that it has taken action against the suspects it has identified thus far. We will continue to closely follow the international investigations into this tragic incident and advocate for justice that is timely, transparent, and in accordance with all due process. We are saddened to hear confirmation of Mr. Khashoggi’s death, and we offer our deepest condolences to his family, fiancée, and friends.
Saudi Arabia’s acknowledgment of Khashoggi’s death comes after The Washington Post reported on Oct. 10 that MBS had personally ordered an effort to lure the journalist back to Saudi Arabia. Officials in multiple countries had speculated at the time that the plan to capture Khashoggi may have gone awry, leading to his killing.
Khashoggi disappeared on Oct. 2 after entering the consulate to obtain a document he needed to marry his fiancée. The journalist, who was once close to the Saudi royal family, had become critical of the repression of human rights activists under the crown prince. He had been living in self-imposed exile in Washington, D.C., for the past year and was a columnist for The Washington Post.
News of Khashoggi’s disappearance emerged after his fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, told friends she waited outside the consulate for nearly 12 hours and didn’t see him exit the building. She returned the following day, and there was still no sign of him.
Saudi leaders initially maintained Khashoggi had left the premises on foot shortly after retrieving the marriage document but didn’t provide surveillance footage to back up the story. Their statement on Saturday marks a drastic reversal from that initial claim and raises questions about the kingdom’s lack of transparency in handling Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Turkish authorities launched an investigation immediately after the journalist was reported missing and leaked information to U.S. intelligence and mediaoutlets indicating Khashoggi had been assassinated under orders from the Saudi royal court.
Fifteen Saudi officials and intelligence officers arrived in Istanbul on two private jets on the day of the journalist’s disappearance. Both planes were operated by Sky Prime Aviation Services, a company frequently used by the Saudi government. Some of the officials were transported in a tinted van to the home of the Saudi consul general, and all of them later left the country on planes departing for Cairo and Dubai. Turkish staffers at the residence were told to take that day off.
The agents included several senior officials in the Saudi government and men with close ties to MBS.
According to Turkish officials, the Saudi agents were waiting for Khashoggi when he entered the consulate. They say he was killed within minutes, then beheaded and dismembered. And within hours, the killers had left the country.
The kingdom did not say in its statement on Saturday where Khashoggi’s body is.
Khashoggi’s editors at the Post described him as a “committed, courageous journalist” and “one of the leading proponents of freedom and democratic change” for Saudi Arabia and the surrounding region. He was a self-described patriot and rejected the label “dissident” thrust on him as a result of his criticism of the Saudi government.
“I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice,” he wrote in September 2017. “To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. I can speak when so many cannot. I want you to know that Saudi Arabia has not always been as it is now. We Saudis deserve better.”
Carla Herreria and Akbar Shahid Ahmed contributed to this report.