The Trump administration and Saudi Arabia each took steps Thursday to punish those they said were involved in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but U.S. lawmakers and other critics said the moves did not go far enough.
Many in Congress have accused the administration of placing its desire to maintain close relations with Saudi Arabia — particularly with its senior leadership — above a serious response to the Khashoggi case and the war in Yemen, where U.S.-aided Saudi airstrikes have killed thousands of civilians and caused widespread starvation.
A sweeping proposal to increase congressional oversight and suspend U.S. weapons sales to the Saudis was introduced Thursday by a bipartisan group of senior senators.
That measure followed sanctions imposed by the Treasury Department on 17 Saudis who Secretary Steven Mnuchin said “targeted and brutally killed a journalist who resided and worked in the United States.”
“The government of Saudi Arabia must take appropriate steps to end any targeting of political dissidents or journalists,” Mnuchin said in a statement.
Just hours earlier in Riyadh, the public prosecutor released a report saying 11 Saudi citizens had been indicted in the crime, which took place when Khashoggi visited the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. It said authorities would seek the death penalty against five of those charged.
Providing a new description of the killing — which the Saudis initially denied took place and later said was the result of a fistfight — the prosecutor said Khashoggi was given a lethal injection by Saudi agents who had orders only to bring him to Saudi Arabia through persuasion or, if necessary, with force. His body was then dismembered, carried out of the consulate and disposed of by a Turkish contact, the prosecutor said. He offered no indication of where Khashoggi’s remains could be found.
Neither the administration nor the Saudis implicated Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom Turkey has indirectly accused of ordering Khashoggi’s death, or others in the senior Saudi leadership. The extent to which the sanctions and indictment lists overlapped was unclear, because the Saudis did not provide names.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that the sanctions were “significant” but that he hopes for more action. Corker said he has asked for a “high-level meeting” with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and CIA Director Gina Haspel “to share with us exactly what is happening with the U.S. response to Saudi Arabia” on Yemen and Khashoggi.
“It’s very important for them to be forthcoming given the heightened level of concern and increasing demand for action here in the Senate,” Corker said in a statement.
Several other lawmakers issued similar statements. “I am disturbed that following repeated Saudi lies about what happened to Jamal, the administration appears to be following the Saudi playbook of blaming mid-level officials and exonerating its leadership,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) derided the sanctions, saying on Twitter that “these individuals might lose their heads, do you think they care” about sanctions? “We are pretending to do something and doing NOTHING,” Paul tweeted.
Khashoggi, who feared for his safety in Saudi Arabia and relocated to Virginia last year, was a contributing columnist for The Washington Post and a critic of some of Mohammed’s policies.
In a statement, Post publisher Fred Ryan said: “In announcing actions against ‘those responsible’ for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, the Saudi and U.S. governments are asking the world to take their word for it that this settles the matter. From the start, the Saudi ‘investigation’ has been an effort to shield those ultimately responsible for this heinous crime when there is every reason to believe that it was authorized at the highest levels of the Saudi government.”
Imposed under the Global Magnitsky Act, which empowers the United States to sanction human rights abusers abroad, the sanctions freeze any assets of the designated Saudis that are under U.S. jurisdiction and prohibit Americans from dealings with the 17. Corker led a bipartisan group of senators who called on President Trump last month to determine whether the Saudi government had violated the act and to “consider any relevant information, including with respect to the highest-ranking officials in the Government of Saudi Arabia.”
The most senior person sanctioned was Saud al-Qahtani, a former top aide to the crown prince. Treasury also named Mohammad al-Otaibi, the Saudi consul general in Istanbul, in whose diplomatic mission Khashoggi was killed; and Maher Mutreb, described as a Qahtani “subordinate.” Mutreb, a security official who is frequently seen at the side of the crown prince, was photographed entering and leaving the consulate on the day of the killing. The department named 14 others, saying only that they were “members of an operations team” who had a role in Khashoggi’s death.
Pompeo, the administration’s point man on the Khashoggi matter, said in a statement that “at the time of the killing,” the sanctioned individuals “occupied positions in the Royal Court and several ministries and offices of the Government of Saudi Arabia.”
“Our action today is an important step in responding to Khashoggi’s killing,” Pompeo said. “The State Department will continue to seek all relevant facts, consult Congress, and work with other nations to hold accountable those involved in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.”
A U.S. official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the 17 were only an “initial tranche” of people held responsible for Khashoggi’s death, and that the U.S. investigation remained “a work in progress.”
A number of current and former U.S. officials, and Middle East experts, have said the Istanbul operation would not have been launched without the knowledge and approval of the powerful crown prince, who is the son of King Salman and is considered Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.
But even as he has denounced Khashoggi’s killing, Trump has emphasized Saudi Arabia’s importance to U.S. objectives in the Middle East, including a pending Israeli-Palestinian peace plan and the campaign against Iran, and stressed the economic advantages of American arms sales to the Saudis, the world’s largest purchasers of U.S. defense equipment. During his May 2017 visit to Riyadh, Trump claimed $110 billion in newly agreed-upon sales that he has variously said since then would provide hundreds of thousands or a million U.S. jobs.
Among the differences between the U.S. and Saudi statements Thursday, Treasury’s account appeared to indicate a planned killing, while the Saudi prosecutor said the decision to kill Khashoggi was made on-site by “the head” of the Saudi team sent to “negotiate” with him. The agent “concluded it would not be possible to transfer the victim by force,” so “decided to murder” him.
“The investigation concluded that the crime was carried out after a physical altercation with the victim where he was forcibly restrained and injected with a large amount of a drug resulting in an overdose that led to his death,” the report said, according to an English translation provided by the Saudi government.
Turkish intelligence officials have said that audio recordings of events in the consulate indicate that Khashoggi was strangled or suffocated in a premeditated killing soon after he arrived.
In a timeline provided by the prosecutor, and expanded upon by a spokesman at a Riyadh news conference, the original plan to snatch Khashoggi was issued Sept. 29 by Saudi Arabia’s then-deputy intelligence chief, Ahmed al-Assiri, who ordered a 15-man team to “bring back the victim by means of persuasion, and if persuasion fails, to do so by force.”
One agent assigned to the team “because of his previous relationship with the victim” was referred by Qahtani, who among other things has been in charge of media relations in the kingdom.
In a meeting with the agents before their departure, it said, Qahtani “expressed his belief that the victim was co-opted by organizations and states hostile to the kingdom, and that the victim’s presence outside of Saudi Arabia represents a threat to national security.”
The prosecutor said the team included “a forensics expert” who was brought to “remove evidence from the scene in the case force had to be used to return the victim.” That person is believed to be Salah Muhammed al-Tubaigy, previously identified by The Post as an expert in rapid and mobile autopsies. Tubaigy’s name appears on the Treasury sanctions list.
The Saudi government said last month that both Assiri and Qahtani had been fired for their involvement in the case, but did not specify what their role was. Thursday’s statement by the prosecutor said Assiri had been falsely informed by the returning agents that Khashoggi had left the consulate after they failed to persuade or force him to come home with them. It was not known if Assiri or Qahtani were among those indicted.
Assiri, a confidant of the crown prince who also has close relations with the U.S. defense establishment, was not included on the Treasury sanctions list.
Fahim reported from Istanbul. Carol Morello and Karoun Demirjian in Washington and Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul contributed to this report.