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The Saudis’ Explanation of Khashoggi’s Death, in Five Acts (and Counting)

He was somewhere on the streets of Istanbul, until he wasn’t. He was dead in a fistfight, until he wasn’t.

From the moment the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after walking into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul this month, Saudi officials have offered a dizzying variety of public accounts about his fate. Here’s how the Saudi government has changed its story.

That was the contention of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in an interview with Bloomberg reporters, the day after Mr. Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul for a marriage document and vanished.

“My understanding is he entered and he got out after a few minutes or one hour,” Prince Mohammed said, later adding, “We have nothing to hide.”

Saudi officials went so far as to give Reuters journalists a tour of the consulate, opening up cupboards, filing cabinets and panels over air conditioning units to prove he wasn’t there. They professed to be worriedly searching for him.

After Turkish officials put out word through news media outlets that a 15-person team of Saudis had killed Mr. Khashoggi, a Saudi-owned satellite news channel offered up an innocent explanation.

They were only tourists, the news channel, Al Arabiya, said, and had been falsely accused of involvement in the dissident journalist’s disappearance.

With international furor over Mr. Khashoggi’s fate growing, the Saudis started to float the narrative that Mr. Khashoggi was in fact dead, as much of the world suspected, but at the hands of “rogue killers.”

That account was initially backed up by President Trump, following a phone call with King Salman of Saudi Arabia: “It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers — who knows,” the president said.

A person familiar with the Saudi government’s plans then said that a Saudi intelligence official who was a friend of the crown prince ordered the interrogation, and that Prince Mohammed had approved it, but that the intelligence official went too far.

Mr. Khashoggi got into a tussle in the Saudi Consulate when he tried to escape from men trying to force him to return to his home country, Saudi officials said on Oct. 20.

Saudi Arabia arrested the 15 men sent to confront Mr. Khashoggi, and dismissed a close aide to the crown prince and Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, the deputy director of Saudi intelligence, who the government said organized the operation.

A Saudi official said the goal had been to return dissidents living abroad, but the order had been misinterpreted as it made its way down the chain of command. A confrontation erupted when Mr. Khashoggi saw his captors, the official said: The men stopped him from fleeing, punches were thrown, Mr. Khashoggi screamed and one of the men put him in a chokehold, strangling him to death.

Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor said on Thursday that Turkey had given Saudi officials new information in the course of a joint Saudi-Turkish investigation.

But the prosecutor said the investigation was continuing, making it unclear whether Saudi Arabia itself had concluded that the killing was premeditated.

The new shift in the Saudi account coincided with a visit to Turkey by Gina Haspel, the director of the C.I.A., who was expected to gain access to an audio recording and other evidence that Turkey says proves Mr. Khashoggi was assassinated on orders from the upper levels of the Saudi royal family.

Source: NYT > World

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