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Saudi explanation of Khashoggi's death is widely dismissed as a coverup

President Donald Trump discusses pending sales of weapons as he meets with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington, March 20, 2018. Even though American and European executives are staying away from a showcase Saudi investment conference, companies are unlikely to sever ties or avert future deals after the killing of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (Doug Mills/Copyright 2018 The New York Times)

ISTANBUL - A spokesman for Turkey's ruling party vowed Saturday, Oct. 20, that the government would "uncover what has happened" to Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as skepticism mounted over Saudi Arabia's account that the U.S.-based columnist was killed Oct. 2 during a fistfight inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

The Saudi explanation - that an argument in the consulate led to a fatal brawl - is at odds with the conclusions of Turkish investigators, who believe that Khashoggi was deliberately killed by Saudi agents who had been dispatched to Istanbul for the purpose. Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist, was a prominent critic of the Saudi leadership.

"We don't blame anyone in advance, but we do not consent to this being covered up," said the ruling-party spokesman, Omer Celik, according to the semiofficial Anadolu news agency.

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As Saudi Arabia's closest Arab allies rushed to its defense on Saturday, the results of the Saudi investigation were being greeted with skepticism or derision by others, including several U.S. lawmakers and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But Turkey's reaction is being especially closely watched, because Turkish authorities are said to possess evidence, including audio recordings, that could reveal exactly how Khashoggi died. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government has so far refused to publicly share that evidence, possibly to protect Turkish surveillance methods but also, analysts said, to preserve a measure of leverage over the Saudis and the Trump administration, which has tried to protect its Saudi allies.

Khashoggi, a resident of Virginia, vanished on the afternoon of Oct. 2 after entering the Saudi Consulate to obtain documents that he needed to remarry. For more than two weeks, Saudi Arabia denied any knowledge of his whereabouts and insisted that he had walked out of the consulate unharmed. The journalist's disappearance and slaying have sparked an international outcry as well as intense criticism of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country's de facto ruler, tarnishing his image in the West as a reformer.

Early Saturday, Oct. 21, the Saudi government acknowledged for the first time that Khashoggi was dead. Saudi authorities said they had fired five top officials and arrested 18 other Saudi nationals as a result of the preliminary investigation. Two of Mohammed's close advisers were among those fired.

Video: Saudi Arabia acknowledged Oct. 20 that Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi was killed while visiting its consulate in Istanbul, saying he died during a fist fight. (The Washington Post)

In a possible attempt to derail Turkey's ongoing criminal investigation, Saudi Arabia's justice minister, Walid bin Mohammed al-Samaani, said on Saturday that Saudi courts had jurisdiction over the case because it occurred in a Saudi consulate, which "falls within the sovereignty of the Kingdom," according to a statement posted on the official Saudi Press Agency.

President Donald Trump told reporters Saturday afternoon that he would be speaking with the crown prince very soon and is considering placing sanctions on Saudi Arabia, though preferably not on U.S. sales of arms and other military equipment. "That would hurt us far more" than it would harm the Saudis, Trump said.

He said no one in his administration had heard audio or seen video of what transpired in the Saudi Consulate or had reviewed transcripts of any recordings. "I'm not satisfied until we find the answer," he said, referring to how Khashoggi died.

Trump appeared initially to accept the Saudi explanation, but U.S. lawmakers, intelligence officials and foreign policy experts quickly accused the government in Riyadh of a coverup.

"This is an admission of guilt, but the Saudis still aren't coming clean with the truth," Jack Reed, R.I., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. "The Saudi's latest version of events still isn't credible, and the Trump administration must not be complicit in allowing them to sweep this under the rug."

Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the Saudi version of events changes "with each passing day, so we should not assume their latest story holds water."

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, the European Union and numerous European officials condemned Khashoggi's killing and called for a thorough and transparent investigation, with accountability for those involved.

Merkel and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas issued a statement saying: "We expect transparency from Saudi Arabia about the circumstances of his death. . . . The information available about events in Istanbul is inadequate."

Maas also questioned the continued sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia, telling the German broadcaster ARD that "as long as we don't know what happened [in the consulate], there's no basis for reaching positive decisions on arms exports to Saudi Arabia."

"The Spanish government is dismayed by early reports from the Saudi prosecutor about the death of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi," the Spanish government said in a statement, according to Reuters.

Fred Ryan, The Washington Post's publisher and chief executive, called the Saudi explanation a "coverup."

"The Government of Saudi Arabia has shamefully and repeatedly offered one lie after another in the nearly three weeks since Jamal Khashoggi disappeared in their Istanbul consulate," Ryan said in a statement. "Offering no proof, and contrary to all available evidence, they now expect the world to believe that Jamal died in a fight following a discussion. This is not an explanation; it is a coverup.

"President Trump, Congress and leaders of the civilized world should demand to see verifiable evidence," he continued. "The Saudis cannot be allowed to fabricate a face-saving solution to an atrocity that appears to have been directed by the highest levels of their government."

The kingdom's closest Arab allies, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, have pledged their support. Saudi Arabia's preliminary investigation "demonstrates the Kingdom's keenness and commitment to finding the truth of this incident and taking the required legal action against those involved," Egypt's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Turkish investigators are still searching for Khashoggi's body, which they believe was cut into pieces after he was killed. The Saudi statement on Saturday did not address what happened to the body.

"This is not over. It is just starting," said Fatih Oke, a representative of the Turkish Arab Media Association, speaking Saturday at a news conference held in front of the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul by Khashoggi's supporters.

"We want justice for Jamal," Oke said. "We want Jamal's murderers to be punished. However, we want punishments not only for the 18 men, but also for the authorities that gave the orders."

Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi's fiancee, posted a short video of him on Twitter on Saturday, depicting a light moment when a cat jumped onto his lap during an interview. "They took your bodily presence from my world," she wrote. "But your beautiful laugh will remain in my soul forever."

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This article was written by Kareem Fahim, a reporter for The Washington Post.

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