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How Saudi agents plotted to dismember Jamal Khashoggi and other chilling takeaways from a U.N. investigation

On Oct. 2, 2018, Saudi agents killed Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. What has been done in the aftermath? (Video: Joyce Lee, Thomas LeGro, Dalton Bennett, John Parks/The Washington Post)
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A special U.N. investigator released a new report Wednesday on her inquest into the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The 101-page report, compiled by special rapporteur Agnes Callamard, provides new details of Khashoggi’s murder inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October, and it calls for an investigation of the role of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Here are the key takeaways from the report:

Audio recordings provide new details about Khashoggi’s killing

Saudi agents discussed a plan to dismember Khashoggi’s body 13 minutes before Khashoggi entered the consulate on Oct. 2, according to the report. “Joints will be separated,” forensic expert Salah Tubaigy told Maher Mutreb, whom the report describes as a Saudi intelligence officer. The two discussed which type of bag to place the body in — leather, they suggested — and referred to Khashoggi as a “sacrificial animal.”

These were among the new details revealed in Callamard’s report. Turkish authorities had previously determined that Khashoggi was strangled and dismembered inside the consulate. But Callamard’s report — based on a five-month investigation — provides the most complete picture of Khashoggi’s death to date. Turkish authorities allowed Callamard to listen to about 45 minutes of audio — out of seven hours’ worth — that they recorded in the consulate. Her report also reveals that Saudi agents initially told Khashoggi they planned to kidnap him to forcibly return him to Saudi Arabia. But shortly afterward, the report says, there were “sounds of a struggle.”

Efforts by Saudi agents to cover up the killing

The report also details the steps Saudi agents took to cover up Khashoggi’s killing. “The interception of Mr. Khashoggi was the result of a planned and elaborate mission involving extensive coordination and resources,” Callamard wrote.

According to Turkish intelligence, the report says, a Saudi security team swept the Saudi Consulate for bugs on Sept. 27 — six days before Khashoggi’s death. Khashoggi first visited the consulate about obtaining a marriage license for his upcoming nuptials with Turkish fiancee Hatice Cengiz on Sept. 28, and officials told him he must return to the consulate on Oct. 2. Saudi officials relayed news to Riyadh of the journalist’s impending return to the consulate, according to the U.N. report, and a security attache said of Khashoggi, “It’s known that he is one of the people sought.”

In a phone call later that day, Saudi Arabia’s consul general in Istanbul, Mohammed Alotaibi, referred to an “assignment” that was “security related.” A team of Saudi agents arrived on Oct. 1 and Oct. 2 to await Khashoggi. After the struggle that led to his death, men carrying “what seem like plastic trash bags” and at least one suitcase exited the building, followed by a body double wearing what seemed to be Khashoggi’s clothes, the report says.

In addition, “the Special Rapporteur found credible evidence pointing to the crime scenes having been thoroughly, even forensically, cleaned,” the report says. “These indicate that the Saudi investigation was not conducted in good faith, and that it may amount to obstructing justice.”

MBS must have known

The report places the blame for Khashoggi’s killing squarely on Saudi Arabia, and it adds that the circumstances of his murder could be classified as torture — another violation of international law. It also says that “credible evidence” warrants an additional probe into Crown Prince Mohammed’s role in the killing.

The CIA concluded previously that the crown prince likely ordered Khashoggi’s killing. The U.N. report backs up that finding, pointing to the magnitude of coordination and resources behind the murder plot as evidence that the highest levels of Saudi leadership must have known about it.

“While the Saudi government claims that these resources were put in place by Ahmed Asiri, every expert consulted finds it inconceivable that an operation of this scale could be implemented without the Crown Prince being aware, at a minimum, that some sort of mission of a criminal nature, directed at Mr. Khashoggi, was being launched,” Callamard wrote.

There’s no evidence that the United States or Turkey knew about the plot to kill Khashoggi beforehand

Callamard found “no evidence” that the CIA knew about threats to Khashoggi’s life before his death.

“The killing of Mr. Khashoggi has highlighted the vulnerabilities of dissidents living abroad, and the risks they are facing of covert actions by the authorities of their countries of origin or non-State actors associated to them,” she wrote.

While countries hosting such dissidents bear responsibility for ensuring their safety, Callamard did not find evidence that Turkey or the United States violated “their obligation to protect Mr. Khashoggi.”

But her report warned that if proof emerged that the CIA or other countries’ intelligence agencies had prior knowledge that Khashoggi’s life was in danger, they “could be found to be in breach of their responsibility to protect, including to warn him.”

The report casts doubt on Saudi Arabia’s judicial process

Saudi Arabia has changed its narrative several times since Khashoggi’s death. At one point the Saudis blamed the killing on a fistfight gone wrong. The kingdom arrested 21 Saudis in connection with Khashoggi’s death and eventually charged 11 of them with killing him — although the government has not made their names public. Callamard published a list of the 11 names based on intelligence from sources in several governments, and that list includes some — but not all — of the Saudi agents she determined belonged to the 15-person hit team.

Airing concerns about the Saudi judicial process, Callamard called for a suspension of the trial. “The trial underway in Saudi Arabia will not deliver credible accountability,” she wrote.

She did not let Turkey off the hook, either. “Both the investigations conducted by Saudi Arabia and Turkey failed to meet international standards regarding the investigation into unlawful deaths,” she wrote.

“Turkey has not initiated proceedings yet and hopes for credible accountability are weak in a country with such a track record of imprisonment of journalists,” she added.