Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s partial admission of responsibility for the murder last year of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul seems at first to be big news and a bold step. But a closer reading of the text of his remarks, made in an interview with the American PBS channel for a documentary to be aired next week, reveals it to be no such thing. It is merely his latest attempt to clear himself of the charge that he personally ordered the killing, as indicated by US intelligence reports based on taped recordings of conversations in the consulate building.
In his comments, Muhammad Bin-Salman does not take responsibility for the planning of the crime or admit to prior knowledge of it. When pressed on how that could be when some of his closest aides — including the former deputy head of intelligence Ahmad al-Asiri and advisor Saud al-Qahtani – were charged with the murder, he replies that there are three million government employees in Saudi Arabia and they take their own decisions. “I have officials, ministers to follow things, and they’re responsible. They have the authority to do that,” he says.
In other words, he knew nothing.
At hearings of the secret trial of the 11 people indicted for complicity in the murder, the Saudi public prosecutor reportedly charged that Asiri ordered the team of operatives sent to Istanbul to kill Khashoggi if he could not be made to return to Saudi Arabia. The circulation of this story was widely seen as an attempt to absolve Muhammad Bin-Salman.
In the latest interview, the crown prince maintains that the only sense in which he bears responsibility is that he is the country’s de facto leader and was in power when the crime was carried out. “It happened under my watch,” he says. “I get all the responsibility because it happened under my watch.”
Even if one were to accept that this assertion, Muhammad Bin-Salman will continue to face demands for more transparency and for international investigators to be allowed to interview suspects and witnesses freely and without intimidation. His claim of non-involvement will not put an end to the flood of unanswered questions about the affair: How was the operation conceived and carried out? What happened to the body? Who gave the orders? Will the trial be open? And what sentences will those convicted face and will they be executed?
The issue will not go away, much as the US administration and other allied governments and supplicant regimes try to shrug it off and assume a business-as-usual posture.
The pro-government Turkish daily Sabah recently published more lurid details of the murder based on the recordings held by the Turkish authorities: how the murdered journalist cried out while he was being suffocated, and how the Saudi forensic pathologist sent to dismember him casually remarked that this was the first time he had worked on a warm body.
Other leaked Turkish reports say Khashoggi’s body-parts were taken in cases to the Turkish consul’s residence and incinerated in a high-temperature oven that was readied especially for the purpose of destroying all evidence of the crime.
It is possible that the forthcoming PBS documentary might also make some further damning revelations, and that the published excerpts of Muhammad Bin-Salman’s remarks were only a ‘teaser’.
And it would come as no surprise if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were to use the forthcoming anniversary of Khashoggi’s disappearance to reveal yet more secrets about the affair aimed at embarrassing the Saudi crown prince and his government, with whom relations are highly tense.
The crime of the murder of Jamal Kashoggi will remain a nightmare that will continue to haunt Muhammad Bin-Salman until the full truth comes out. It could get a whole lot scarier for him if Donald Trump is impeached or fails to get re-elected. That would leave him on his own to face a US Congress committed to getting to the bottom of the case and bringing all the perpetrators to justice – possibly outside the kingdom.
*This article was originally published on Rai al-Youm.