THE US President did not mince words when describing the “severe punishment” Saudi Arabia could attract over a missing journalist.
US PRESIDENT Donald Trump says Saudi Arabia could be behind the disappearance of missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi, warning Washington will inflict “severe punishment” if that is the case.
“We’re going to get to the bottom of it and there will be severe punishment,” Trump told CBS’s “60 Minutes” program, according to an extract of an interview that was released on Saturday.
“As of this moment, they deny it and they deny it vehemently. Could it be them? Yes,” Trump said in the interview, which was conducted on Thursday.
It comes as a Turkish newspaper reports officials have an audio recording of the alleged killing of Khashoggi from the Apple Watch he wore when he walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul over a week ago.
The new claim published by the pro-government Sabah newspaper, through which Turkish security officials have leaked much information about the case, puts more pressure on Saudi Arabia to explain what happened to Khashoggi.
The writer, who has written critically about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, disappeared after he walked into the consulate Oct. 2. The kingdom has maintained the allegations against it are “baseless,” though an official early Saturday on Khashoggi’s 60th birthday acknowledged for the first time some believe the writer was killed by the kingdom.
Authorities recovered the audio from Khashoggi’s iPhone and his iCloud account, the newspaper said. The journalist had given his phones to his fiancee before entering the consulate.
The newspaper also alleged Saudi officials tried to delete the recordings first by incorrectly guessing Khashoggi’s PIN on the watch, then later using the journalist’s finger. However, Apple Watches do not have a fingerprint ID unlock function like iPhones. The newspaper did not address that in its report. An Apple Watch can record audio and can sync that later with an iPhone over a Bluetooth connection if it is close by. The newspaper’s account did not elaborate on how the Apple Watch synced that information to both the phone and Khashoggi’s iCloud account.
Turkish officials have not answered queries from The Associated Press about Khashoggi’s Apple Watch.
Turkish officials say they believe a 15-member Saudi “assassination squad” killed Khashoggi at the consulate. They’ve also alleged that they have video of the slaying, but not explained how they have it.
Turkey may be trying to protect its intelligence sources through leaking this way, analysts say.
“Under normal circumstances, intelligence services would want to protect their sources, whether human or technical,”
Carrie Cordero, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, wrote recently. She formerly worked on intelligence matters for the U.S. government. She added: “The Turkish government may need to reveal sources it does not want to reveal if the Saudi Arabian government continues to deny involvement despite evidence Turkey has in its possession.”
Saudi Arabia has said it had nothing to do with Khashoggi’s disappearance, without explaining or offering evidence of how the writer left the consulate and disappeared into Istanbul with his fiancee waiting outside.
A Saudi-owned satellite news channel has begun referring to the 15-man team as “tourists,” without providing evidence to support the claim. It echoes how Russia has described the men who allegedly carried out the Novichok nerve agent poisonings in Salisbury, England, in March.
Early on Saturday, the state-run Saudi Press Agency published a statement from Saudi Interior Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud again denying the kingdom’s involvement. This time, however, it acknowledged for the first time that Saudi Arabia was accused of killing Khashoggi.
“What has been circulating about orders to kill (Khashoggi) are lies and baseless allegations against the government of the kingdom, which is committed to its principles, rules and traditions and is in compliance with international laws and conventions,” Prince Abdulaziz said.
Omer Celik, a spokesman for Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, said that Khashoggi’s disappearance will be “investigated strongly.”
A delegation from Saudi Arabia arrived in Turkey on Friday as part of a joint investigation into the writer’s disappearance.
“Such an act is an attack on all the values of the democratic world. It’s an act that will never be forgiven or covered up,” he said. “This is not an act that Turkey would ever consider legitimate. If there are people who committed this, it will have heavy consequences.”
Khashoggi’s disappearance has put pressure on President Donald Trump, who has enjoyed close relations with the Saudis since entering office. Trump has promised to personally call Saudi Arabia’s King Salman soon about “the terrible situation in Turkey.”
Speaking to CBS’ “60 Minutes” in an interview to be aired Sunday, Trump said of the Saudis: “They deny it. They deny it every way you can imagine.”
However, Trump also said: “Could it be them? Yes.” Separately, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, who accompanied him to the Saudi consulate, the State Department said Friday.
No details of the conversation were released.
In an interview Friday with the AP, Cengiz said Khashoggi was not nervous when he entered the consulate to obtain paperwork required for their marriage. “He said, ‘See you later my darling,’ and went in,” she told the AP.
In written responses to questions by the AP, Cengiz said Turkish authorities had not told her about any recordings and Khashoggi was officially “still missing.” She said investigators were examining his cellphones, which he had left with her.
Global business leaders also are reassessing their ties with Saudi Arabia, stoking pressure on the Gulf kingdom to explain what happened to Khashoggi. Khashoggi, who was considered close to the Saudi royal family, had become a critic of the current government and Prince Mohammed, the 33-year-old heir apparent who has shown little tolerance for criticism.
As a contributor to the Post, Khashoggi has written extensively about Saudi Arabia, including criticism of its war in Yemen, its recent diplomatic spat with Canada and its arrest of women’s rights activists after the lifting of a ban on women driving.
Those policies are all seen as initiatives of the crown prince, who has also presided over a roundup of activists and businessmen.