Turkish Police Think Saudi Critic Was Killed in Istanbul Consulate

(Bloomberg) -- Authorities in Turkey believe a Saudi government critic who went missing after entering the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul this week was killed there, a Turkish government official said on Sunday.

The comments by the official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, will likely inflame tensions between Turkey and the Saudi government, already at loggerheads over regional policy. A Saudi official denied the claim.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman told Bloomberg in an interview on Wednesday that Jamal Khashoggi, a contributor to the Washington Post, had left the building shortly after entering it and that he was ready to allow Turkey to search the consulate.

Speculation that Khashoggi was detained focused new attention on what critics say is a broad crackdown on dissent under Prince Mohammed that has coincided with his attempts to loosen social restrictions and create a more dynamic economy less reliant on oil.

Khashoggi’s murder is believed to have been premeditated and carried out by a team of 15 people flown in from the kingdom, the Turkish official said, without providing evidence. The details were also reported by Reuters and the Washington Post.

An official at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul “strongly denounced these baseless allegations,” according to an e-mailed statement. A Saudi delegation has been sent to Turkey to assist “in the investigations regarding the disappearance of the Saudi citizen Jamal Khashoggi,” according to the statement.

Turkish Police Think Saudi Critic Was Killed in Istanbul Consulate

Khashoggi, who had been living in self-imposed exile for the past year, has been missing since Tuesday. His fiancee and friends initially said they fear he was detained or kidnapped for his criticism of the government.

An official and unofficial adviser to senior Saudi royals in the past, Khashoggi said last year he moved to the U.S. because of concerns he’d be arrested in Saudi Arabia or prevented from traveling abroad.

“I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice,” he wrote in the Washington Post, where he’s been a regular contributor. “To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. I can speak when so many cannot.”

Turkish Police Think Saudi Critic Was Killed in Istanbul Consulate

The 33-year-old heir to the Saudi throne said he wasn’t aware of Khashoggi’s whereabouts. He used the interview with Bloomberg to defend actions that have tarnished his reputation abroad as a man trying to overhaul one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies. He said the arrests of clerics, women activists and some businessmen over the past year were a small price to pay for peacefully eradicating extremism in the world’s top oil exporter.

“I didn’t call myself a reformer of Saudi Arabia,” Prince Mohammed said when questioned about criticism of the arrests. “I am the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and I am trying to do the best that I can do through my position.”

The prince said authorities have detained about 1,500 people over the past three years on national security grounds rather than as part of a clampdown on dissent. The number, he said, pales in comparison with Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has locked up tens of thousands since a failed coup against him in 2016.

Ties between Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been strained over Ankara’s support of a brand of political Islam opposed by the kingdom and some of its Arab allies. Turkey has also sided with Qatar in a major diplomatic dispute with a Saudi-led coalition.

Ali Shihabi, head of the Arabia Foundation, a pro-Saudi think tank in the U.S., said Erdogan’s ruling AKP party should not be in charge of any investigation into Khashoggi’s fate.

“In any event if Jamal is still missing or God forbid dead, then the judgment should be left to an independent investigation carried out by a credible international party,” he said on Twitter. “The Turks are not a neutral party. ”

Already before Khashoggi’s disappearance, Saudi authorities have been criticized by international rights groups for arrests that included up prominent women activists, rounded up shortly before lifting a decades-old ban on women driving this year. Others arrested earlier include Salman Al-Odah, a popular cleric who’s facing the death penalty.

When Canada called for the release of two female activists, the Saudi government responded by banning the Canadian ambassador from returning to Riyadh.

Turkish Police Think Saudi Critic Was Killed in Istanbul Consulate

The crown prince said he wasn’t concerned about his image overseas.

Movements for change around the world have come “with a price,” the prince said. Ending slavery in the U.S., for instance, was only possible after a civil war, he added.

“Here we are trying to get rid of extremism and terrorism without civil war, without stopping the country from growing,” he said. “So if there is a small price in that area, it’s better than paying a big debt to do that move.”

Turkish Police Think Saudi Critic Was Killed in Istanbul Consulate

The prince accused some of those held of giving information to intelligence agencies connected to regional foes Qatar and Iran, and said the government had evidence including videos and recorded calls. He also rejected claims that the arrests have created a climate of fear at home, saying his actions have overwhelming support among Saudis.

“Some of the people on this list, they were part of that but they didn’t know that they were part of an intelligence operation, we’ve released them,” he said. “But the other people, the evidence and the investigations proved that they did know it was intelligence work against Saudi Arabia.”

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