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US to release report blaming Saudi prince in Jamal Khashoggi murder

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh on October 23, 2018. - Saudi Arabia is hosting the key investment summit overshadowed by the killing of critic Jamal Khashoggi that has prompted a wave of policymakers and corporate giants to withdraw. (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP)

A US intelligence report expected to be made public Friday will blame Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — a key figure in the US-Saudi relationship — for the murder and dismemberment of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The report was completed under the administration of Donald Trump in the wake of the grisly October 2018 killing.

But President Joe Biden has ordered a declassified version to be released as part of a reset where Washington is distancing itself from Prince Mohammed.

According to leaks, the report asserts that Prince Mohammed directed the assassination in which Khashoggi, a Washington Post writer and US resident, was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, then killed and cut into pieces.

Prince Mohammed has said he accepts Saudi Arabia’s overall responsibility in the killing of his vocal critic, but denies a personal link.

The expected release of the report comes on the heels of a first phone call between Biden and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman late Thursday. The White House made clear that Biden had no intention of speaking directly to the 35-year-old crown prince, who is de facto leader in Saudi Arabia and poised to take over after the ailing king.

The White House said that Biden and the 85-year-old king emphasized the countries’ security ties and “the US commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups.”

However, in a shift from the Trump era, Biden also “affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law.”

– Lured to death –

A 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 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, the 59-year-old 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 refused to publicly hold the Saudi strongman responsible, even as the US government demanded the perpetrators be punished.

According to The Washington Post, US intelligence possesses 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 obtained by Turkish intelligence from inside the Istanbul consulate. This helped identify the participants and showed communications between them and Riyadh.

– Question of justice —

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.

Five unnamed defendants were sentenced to death and three others given stiff prison terms. Nine months later, 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.

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