ISTANBUL - Turkey has dismissed Saudi Arabia's latest version of events in the October 2 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its consulate in Istanbul.
Saudi authorities announced this week 11 people are being charged with the writer’s killing and that the death penalty is sought for five. The country's deputy public prosecutor alleged Khashoggi was killed in a rogue operation that went wrong when a fight broke out as he was being injected with a drug and tied up.
“I have to say that I did not find some of the [Saudi] statements satisfactory,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu Thursday.
Cavusoglu went on to repeat Ankara’s claim Khashoggi was the victim of premeditated murder.
Turkey’s political leadership has been at the forefront of challenging Saudi Arabia about the killing, forcing its leadership to repeatedly change its story.
Senior members of Turkey’s ruling AK Party joined hundreds of supporters and friends at an Istanbul mosque on Friday to pray for Khashoggi and vow that justice will be done.
“We are going to be defenders of his cause. What we want is not revenge but justice,” said Yasin Aktay, deputy AK head and friend of Khashoggi, addressing mourners.
“There are 15 people defined as perpetrators [in Khashoggi’s death], but they didn’t make this decision on their own. This is the story being sold to us, and we don’t believe in it,“ he added, criticizing Saudi Arabia's latest version of Khashoggi's killing.
Saudi Arabia's changing story
In the first few days following Khashoggi's disappearance, Saudi officials maintained that the journalist left the consulate after a visit for marriage documents.
Following sustained pressure by Ankara, through a campaign of leaks to international media of information about the killing, Saudi Arabia finally acknowledged the writer died in the consulate.
On Thursday, columnist Abdulkadir Selvi of Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper wrote that a 15-minute recording of Khashoggi’s killers undermines Riyadh's claim the death wasn’t premeditated.
“The Saudi team discusses how to execute Khashoggi. They are reviewing their plan, which was previously prepared, and reminding themselves of the duties of each member,” wrote Selvi, who has close links to Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkey has already shared a seven-minute audio recording capturing Khashoggi’s killing with its Western allies and Saudi authorities. Until now, it has been widely assumed the tape was the key piece of evidence held by Turkish investigators. The claim of further recordings is likely to increase pressure on the Saudis and, in particular, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Erdogan has repeatedly alluded to the crown prince’s alleged involvement, a charge Riyadh strongly denies. Washington, a key ally of the crown prince, continues to back him publicly. And analysts suggest the US is increasingly looking to Erdogan for a resolution of the diplomatic crisis, given his country's pivotal role in the death investigation.
“In the Khashoggi case, they have very good communication with Washington, said former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who served in Washington.
This past week, a U.S. media report suggested Washington was looking into the extradition of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen in exchange for Ankara's easing pressure on Riyadh.
Gulen lives in self-imposed exile in the state of Pennsylvania and denies Turkey's accusation of involvement in a failed Turkish coup in 2016.
Washington denies any deal, but U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said Thursday , “We continue to evaluate the material that the Turkish government presents requesting his extradition."
Gulen’s extradition is a top diplomatic priority for Turkey even as it dismisses any talk of a deal.
“Turkey’s pending request for Fethullah Gulen’s extradition from the United States and the investigation into Khashoggi's murder are two separate issues. They are not connected in any way, shape or form,” said a senior Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"At no point did Turkey offer to hold back on the Khashoggi investigation in return for Fethullah Gulen's extradition,” he added.
Analysts point out it's doubtful Washington could make such an offer, given Gulen’s extradition is a matter for the courts, which experts say is a potentially lengthy and challenging process.
Also, analysts say since Erdogan sees the Saudi crown prince as his chief rival in the region, his goals may extend well beyond an extradition.
“We are in a new phase, and there will be more cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey. And this is part of replacing Mohammed bin Salman,” said former Turkish diplomat Selcen.
“What Erdogan wants to harvest from this case of Khashoggi’s murder,” he added, “is to replace Mohammed bin Salman as the pivotal actor, the linchpin of U.S. strategy in the Middle East.”
Some observers suggest while Turkey has so far handled the Khashoggi case with skill, it could be in danger of overreach, given the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
But they say the U.S. and Saudi Arabia likely will continue to be on the defensive, especially that Turkey, which may well have more incriminating evidence in the case, is now calling for an international investigation.