ISTANBUL — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday that the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was a “planned” and “brutal” murder and called on Saudi Arabia to extradite 18 suspects to Turkey to face justice for the crime.
Erdogan’s highly anticipated comments, during a speech to his ruling party in Ankara, the Turkish capital, contradicted Saudi accounts that Khashoggi was killed when an argument inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul escalated into a fistfight.
The Turkish leader did not directly accuse the Saudi leadership of involvement in the killing but strongly indicated that the Saudi investigation, which has resulted in the arrests of 18 people so far, had not reached high enough into the kingdom’s ruling circles.
“It will not satisfy the public by just pinning this kind of matter on a few security and intelligence officers,” he said. “Covering up this kind of savagery will hurt the conscience of all humanity.”
“Saudi Arabia took an important step by accepting the murder. After this, we expect them to reveal those responsible for this matter. We have information that the murder is not instant, but planned,” he said.
Erdogan did not address the most explosive allegations that have surfaced during the investigation — notably that Khashoggi was dismembered after he was killed. And he did not present any of the evidence Turkey had gathered so far, including audio recordings investigators are said to possess that captured the moments when Khashoggi was killed.
But the president provided the most detailed timeline yet of the days and hours leading up the murder on Oct. 2. He said a team of Saudi agents who were dispatched to Istanbul had carefully prepared for Khashoggi’s death.
The Saudi team that plotted the murder was first alerted, Erdogan said, after Khashoggi visited the consulate on Friday, Sept. 28.
“Planning and the work of a road map starts here,” the president said. Beginning three days later, on Oct. 1, teams of Saudi agents begin arriving in Istanbul, with one team visiting wooded areas in and around Istanbul “for reconnaissance,” Erdogan said, referring to areas that Turkish police later focused on as they searched for Khashoggi’s body.
After another team arrived at the Istanbul consulate, “the hard disk on the consulate camera is removed,” he added. The Saudi team consisted of “intelligence, security and forensic workers,” Erdogan said.
Khashoggi entered the mission at around 1:14 p.m. on Oct. 2. When he had not emerged a few hours later, his fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, who was waiting for him outside, alerted authorities, and an investigation was started, Erdogan said. Camera footage showed that Khashoggi had never left, he added.
Erdogan highlighted attempts by the Saudis to obstruct or cover up the killing, including a ruse involving a Saudi agent who was dressed like Khashoggi and captured on camera exiting the consulate.
“Why did 15 people gather in Istanbul the day of the murder? Who did these people receive orders from?” he asked. “Why was the consulate opened not immediately but days later for investigation? When the murder was obvious, why were inconsistent explanations given?”
“Why is the body still not found?”
Addressing the Saudi monarch, King Salman, Erdogan requested that the 18 Saudi suspects arrested so far be put on trial in Istanbul. But notably, he made no mention of 33-year old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose possible role in the plot has come under scrutiny because of his almost complete consolidation of power in the kingdom as its de-facto leader.
In a possible reference to the crown prince, who was put in charge of restructuring the Saudi intelligence directorate after Khashoggi’s death, Erdogan said it was important that any Saudi investigation be carried out “by an impartial and fair delegation” with no connections to the murder.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Tuesday that the kingdom was committed to a “comprehensive investigation” into the journalist’s death and has dispatched a team to Turkey.
Speaking in Indonesia on Tuesday, Jubeir said the Saudi investigators had “uncovered evidence of a murder.” He also vowed to put mechanisms in place that would prevent similar incidents in future, without expanding upon what those would be.
Khashoggi, a contributor to The Washington Post who had written columns critical of the Saudi leadership over the last year, went to the consulate on the afternoon of Oct. 2 to obtain documents that would allow him to remarry.
His death has cast a harsh light on the rule of the Saudi Arabia’s young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who has eased social restrictions at home while pursuing an unrelenting crackdown on rivals and critics, imprisoning hundreds. Mohammed has also tried to lure exiled dissidents such as Khashoggi, who lived in Virginia, back to Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi’s friends and other exiles have said.
In Riyadh on Tuesday, Saudi authorities opened a landmark investment conference intended to signal afresh that the kingdom is open for business.
But while the guest list for last year’s conference read like a who’s who of the global business elite, the run-up to Tuesday’s event has been marred by pullouts from a stream of Western investors and politicians, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde.
Tuesday’s audience is expected to be dominated instead by representatives Middle Eastern, Asian and Russian companies, suggesting that the Western boycott may have a limited impact on Saudi economic prospects.
The Khashoggi case has also embarrassed the Trump administration, which regards the crown prince as one of its closest Arab allies and Saudi Arabia as a cornerstone of a U.S. strategy to counter Iran. On Monday, CIA Director Gina Haspel headed to Turkey, where she is expected to assess the strength of the evidence that Turkish officials have been drip-feeding the media for weeks.
A stream of Turkish video leaks that surfaced Monday appeared to depict the Saudis trying to cover their tracks after Khashoggi’s death, including images said to be of men at the consulate burning documents and a body double wearing Khashoggi’s clothes, to make it appear the journalist had walked out of the consulate as the Saudis claimed.
The leaks also seemed intended to whip up a sense of anticipation ahead of the speech by Erdogan, who has chided the Saudis in recent weeks for not cooperating with the Turkish investigation but stopped short of blaming the Saudi government for Khashoggi’s death.
On Sunday, in a preview of his speech, Erdogan said he would explain the episode “in a very different way,” the semiofficial Anadolu news agency reported.
“The incident will be revealed entirely,” he said.
Louisa Loveluck in Beirut contributed to this report.