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Saudi crown prince denies killing journalist in first public comments on the 'heinous' case

Saudi crown prince denies killing journalist in first public comments on the 'heinous' case
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks at an investors conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday. (Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Royal Palace handout / EPA)

Trying to stem global condemnation, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Wednesday spoke for the first time about the killing three weeks ago of a U.S.-based Saudi journalist, calling it a “heinous” and “unjustified” crime.

Mohammed, speaking in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, denied what is widely suspected — that he was involved in killing Jamal Khashoggi, a writer critical of his nation’s government — and vowed to find and punish the people responsible.

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Saudi, Turkish and U.S. officials have said that members of the prince’s inner circle, including his security team, formed part of an execution hit squad dispatched from Riyadh to Istanbul, where Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi Consulate on Oct. 2.

The United States on Tuesday revoked the U.S. visas of 21 Saudi officials and security agents identified as suspects. It was the first reprisal by Washington, though critics called it barely a slap on the wrist because the suspects were not likely to be planning trips to the United States.

Saudi officials, after denying for weeks that Khashoggi had been killed, now acknowledge the crime, but blame it on officers exceeding their authority. The desert kingdom is struggling to shield the crown prince from blame, though most of the suspects reported to him, and he had already earned a reputation for rash, reckless behavior.

“The incident that happened was painful for all Saudis, and especially because [Khashoggi is] a Saudi citizen, and I believe it’s painful for every person in the world,” Mohammed said.

“It’s a heinous incident, totally unjustified.”

He was speaking at a Saudi-sponsored conference of high-profile international investors in Riyadh. Many big-name participants, including from the United States, dropped out of the conference because of the Khashoggi case. But several thousand people, including more Saudis than in the previous year, were on hand to give Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, a standing ovation.

Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin also pulled out of the conference, ostensibly in protest of the killing, but showed up at a parallel meeting with Mohammed on Monday.

The prince pledged to work with Turkish authorities in their investigation of the killing and denied the episode had inflamed tension between the two rival Sunni Muslim countries.

Khashoggi’s body has not yet been found after Saudi officials only begrudgingly, after many days, allowed Turkish investigators into the consulate building in Istanbul. On Wednesday, Turkish media reported that Saudi officials finally relented in granting Turkish investigators permission to examine a well at the consulate.

Mohammed had not spoken of the case publicly until now but has spoken by telephone with President Trump and met last week with Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, who traveled to Riyadh to express the administration’s concern. Trump and Pompeo said the prince denied having ordered the execution of the journalist, who wrote opinion columns for the Washington Post and was a resident of Virginia.

On Wednesday, the Saudi government said the crown prince also spoke to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Mohammed, at the conference, said: “Today the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is taking all the legal procedures to investigate and complete the investigations in working with the Turkish government … to get the results and present those who are responsible to trial.”

He said there would be no rift between Turkey and Saudi Arabia as long as their current leaders are alive. “We will prove to the world that the two governments are cooperating to punish any criminal and any guilty party,” he said.

On Tuesday, Erodgan spoke to an assemblage of lawmakers from his political party about the killing. Although he did not name the crown prince, Erdogan seemed to have him in mind in calling for his father, Saudi King Salman, to undertake an “impartial investigation” into what Erdogan called a premeditated, savage murder. He also called on the king to extradite suspects to Turkey for trial, which is unlikely.

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Some analysts predicted Mohammed, a 33-year old political neophyte who has upended Saudi Arabia’s signature brand of low-profile backroom politics, may yet weather what is arguably the country’s greatest crisis since the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, in which most of the attackers were Saudis.

The dynastic Saudi system has no mechanism for removing a crown prince from the line of ascendancy. Only the king can name his heir. Although Salman has dozens of other princes to choose from, he is said to be in bad health and unlikely to be able to pull off such a maneuver.

Meanwhile, Mohammed has many backers in international capitals, notably Trump and his son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner, who are hoping to move past the grisly case quickly.

Not everyone believes the crime will be easily forgotten.

Ilnur Cevik, a member of Erdogan’s coterie of advisors, said that the international community is certain of the crown prince’s involvement, and that “anything said to the contrary will be an empty effort to cover up the mess created by a clumsy Saudi clandestine operation.”

Trump “may try to stand up for [Mohammed] so Washington can use him for its plans against Iran,” Cevik wrote in a column in the Daily Sabah, a Turkish newspaper. “However, from now on, wherever the crown prince goes, he will be regarded as the man with Khashoggi’s blood on his hands.”

Bulos and Wilkinson reported from Istanbul and Washington, respectively.

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