US to release report fingering Saudi prince in Khashoggi murder

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Washington (AFP)

The US director of national intelligence is expected to release a damning report Friday that fingers Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the brutal murder and dismemberment of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018.

The classified report is believed to say that, based on intelligence collected by the CIA and other spy bodies, the kingdom's de facto leader directed the assassination of the respected US-based writer in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The prince has steadfastly denied a part in the murder, even as some of his closest advisors have been shown to be deeply involved.

Intent on strengthening relations with Riyadh, previous US president Donald Trump's administration avoided making the report public or naming Prince Mohammed in the case.

Its declassification and release comes just as President Joe Biden endeavors to reset US relations in the Middle East and return principles of human rights to a prominent position in US policy.

Ahead of the release, Biden spoke on the telephone Thursday with Saudi King Salman, Prince Mohammed's father, in their first discussion since he became president five weeks ago.

A White House statement on the call did not mention the Khashoggi report, but Biden said Wednesday that he had read it.

- High confidence -

A respected veteran Saudi journalist and editor, Khashoggi was in self-exile and residing in the United States, writing articles critical of the crown prince when he was assassinated on October 2, 2018.

The 59-year-old writer had been told by Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States to go to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul if he wanted to obtain documents for his forthcoming marriage to a Turkish woman, Hatice Cengiz.

There, he was killed and his body dismembered by a team sent from Riyadh under the direction of a top aide to Prince Mohammed, Saud al-Qahtani.

Just one month after the murder, the US Central Intelligence Agency concluded with high confidence that Prince Mohammed had ordered the assassination, according to The Washington Post.

But, determined to maintain strong relations with Riyadh, Trump would not publicly hold the Saudi strongman responsible, even as the US government demanded the perpetrators be punished.

According to the Post -- for which Khashoggi regularly wrote -- US intelligence had several key pieces of evidence pointing to Prince Mohammed.

One was a phone call from Prince Mohammed to his brother Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, that was monitored by US intelligence.

In that call, Prince Mohammed instructed his brother to tell Khashoggi to go to Istanbul to obtain the documents he needed for his marriage.

Another piece of evidence was a recording of the murder from inside the Istanbul consulate made by Turkish intelligence, which made clear what happened, helped identify the participants and showed communications between them and Riyadh.

- Denials -

The prince has denied ordering or knowing about the plot to kill Khashoggi.

But few observers of Saudi Arabia believe the murder could have taken place without the knowledge of Prince Mohammed, a calculating strongman who has jailed a number of critics and locked up competing factions in the royal family.

Under heavy pressure from the United States and the international community, the Saudi government put some of the perpetrators on trial.

The closed-door trial exonerated the two officials widely seen as the masterminds: Qahtani, the royal court's media adviser, and deputy intelligence chief Ahmad al-Assiri. Both are part of Prince Mohammed's inner circle.

But five unnamed defendants were sentenced to death and three others given stiff prison terms.

Nine months later, however, the death sentences were withdrawn by the court and replaced with sentences of up to 20 years.

Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders both branded the case a "parody of justice."

But it assuaged the Trump administration, whose main action was to place 17 suspects in the case, including Qahtani but not Assiri, on its sanctions blacklist.