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Saudis Sent Team to Clean Up Khashoggi’s Killing

ISTANBUL — More than a month after Saudi agents assassinated the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, officials in Turkey continue to drip out sensational new details in a killing that has caused an international uproar.

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Carlotta Gall
, New York Times

ISTANBUL — More than a month after Saudi agents assassinated the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, officials in Turkey continue to drip out sensational new details in a killing that has caused an international uproar.

The latest twist in the case that has drawn heavy global criticism of Saudi Arabia: The kingdom sent an expert team to clean up evidence of the crime under the guise of helping with the investigation, a senior Turkish official said on Monday.

The senior Turkish official confirmed the main details of the report and said the Saudi team was sent with the knowledge of top Saudi officials. The two men traveled to Turkey for the sole purpose of covering up evidence of the killing before Turkish police were allowed to search the premises, the official said in comments relayed by electronic message.

The two men were identified as Ahmad Abdulaziz al-Junabi, a chemist, and Khaled Yahya al-Zahrani, a toxicologist, part of a team of Saudi investigators who spent several days in Turkey visiting the consulate and the consul’s residence, ostensibly to help with the investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance, the newspaper reported.

The Turkish official confirmed the names of the two individuals and said that they were part of a cleanup team. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, according to the rules of his office.

The killing has severely strained relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and officials in Istanbul have regularly leaked new information about the case to ratchet up pressure on the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia has detained 18 people implicated in the killing of Khashoggi, but has not said who ordered what Turkish officials have characterized as the political assassination of a prominent critic of the Saudi government. Turkish and Western officials have said that it is unlikely that such a plan would have been carried out without the blessing of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is seen as the country’s de facto ruler.

While the killing has compromised the crown prince's global standing, there is growing international consensus that the case has not appeared to weaken his grip on power over the kingdom.

In the wake of the killing, international companies have come under pressure to cut ties to Saudi Arabia, but on Monday, the chief executive of SoftBank of Japan said it would continue to do business with the kingdom.

Speaking on Monday in Geneva, the president of Saudi Arabia’s human rights commission, Bandar al-Aiban, vowed a full investigation and punishment of those responsible, but shed no new light on the case. His remarks, before the United Nations Human Rights Council, came in a review of the kingdom’s human rights record.

Turkey has demanded, to no avail, that Saudi Arabia disclose what became of Khashoggi’s body, that it name the “local collaborator” who a Saudi official has said helped dispose of the remains and that it turn over the 18 suspects to face the Turkish justice system.

In an interview with CNN on Sunday, Khashoggi’s two sons, Salah and Abdullah, called for their father’s body to be returned for a burial in Saudi Arabia. Salah Khashoggi said he had “faith” in the Saudi investigation of the killing and that “everybody involved will be brought to justice.”

The Saudi cleanup team arrived in Istanbul on Oct. 11, nine days after Khashoggi’s death, and visited the consulate every day from Oct. 12 to Oct. 17, according to Sabah. Turkish investigators were not allowed into the consulate, which is considered Saudi sovereign territory, until Oct. 15. Sabah published photographs of al-Junabi and al-Zahrani emerging from the entrance of the consulate and also published photographs that the newspaper’s investigative editor, Abdurrahman Simsek, said were head shots from cameras at airport passport control.

The men arrived on the same day as a Saudi delegation that met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Oct. 11, as Turkish officials demanded to know what had happened to Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi government who lived in the United States and wrote opinion articles for The Washington Post. He had entered the consulate Oct. 2 for a prearranged meeting to collect papers that would allow him to marry his Turkish fiancé and was never seen again.

When the group identified as a cleanup team was in Turkey, Saudi officials were still insisting that Khashoggi, 59, had left the consulate safely and that they did not know where he was. They later acknowledged that he had been killed in the consulate, at first describing his death as the accidental result of a fight and later calling it premeditated. Turkey has identified a team of 15 Saudi officials that it has accused of being the perpetrators of the murder, who arrived in Turkey in the hours before Khashoggi’s disappearance and left the same day. Some of the 15 turned out to be security officers close to Crown Prince Mohammed and included a top forensic specialist.

The Khashoggi case has worsened Saudi relations with not only Turkey, but also with the United States and some of its closest allies, particularly in Europe. It has also increased attention on Saudi Arabia’s role in the civil war in Yemen, where civilian casualties continue to climb, leading to calls in the West to stop arms sales to the Saudis.

The U.N. review of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record included demands for a transparent investigation into the killing, but representatives of several countries took a broader approach to criticizing the kingdom. They pointed to Saudi Arabia’s frequent and increasing use of capital punishment, including for nonviolent offenses, and accused the Saudis of executing people for political or religious dissent.

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