Saudi Arabia says Khashoggi was killed after 'fight' in consulate, but lawmakers, journalists and advocates find account unconvincing
For 17 days, Saudi government officials and loyalists - from the crown prince and de facto ruler to anonymous twitter users - insisted that journalist Jamal Khashoggi left the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October.
Now, by their own admission they were wrong. Saudi Arabia confirmed on Friday that Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who called for freedom of expression in the Arab World, never came out of the building alive.
Despite reports, citing audio recordings of the incident, of brutal torture followed by the murder and dismembering the journalists' body, Riyadh's stunning admission came with a version of the events that raised eyebrows around the world: Khashoggi died after a "fight and a quarrel" broke out in the consulate.
US lawmakers, rights groups and Khashoggi's fellow journalists expressed scepticism at the Saudi account.
Agnes Callamard, a UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings, said the Saudi explanation is "not plausible".
#SaudiArabia explanation for the arbitrary execution of #JamalKhashoggi is just not plausible. No government should accept it or the pretense at investigation. We need a trustworthy, impartial and transparent investigation. To identify the killers and the mastermind.
— Agnes Callamard (@AgnesCallamard) October 20, 2018
Khashoggi's editor at the Washington Post, Karen Attiah, called the Saudi explanation "almost insulting".
In a Twitter post, she raised three questions: "1) Then what happened to the body? 2) Why did officials lie and say he left the consulate? 3) What evidence do they have to support that there was a fistfight?"
Still, Reuters reported that President Donald Trump was moving to accept the Saudi explanation. He called the Saudi confirmation of the murder a "great first step".
Congress members react
Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen predicted that Trump would try to "sell" the "cover-up" before the president's statement.
"Really, after nearly two weeks, this is the best they could come up with? The sad part is President Trump will likely try to sell this. The United States must not be complicit in this cover-up. Looking forward to what our intelligence agencies have to say," Van Hollen said on Twitter.
The president is trying to defend the Saudi regime and specifically Mohammed bin Salman.
-Imad Harb, Arab Center Washington DC
US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who earlier pledged to "sanction the hell out Saudi Arabia" if it was involved in Khashoggi's murder, was quick to question the most recent Saudi account.
"It's hard to find this latest 'explanation' as credible," he posted on Twitter.
Senator Chris Murphy said the crisis may spark a partisan fight in the US.
Let me preview two things for you:
1. The Republican Congress will do nothing to respond to Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi and this audacious cover up.
2. The election, in 18 days, is a referendum on whether America really stands for anything anymore.
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) October 20, 2018
Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, called the Saudi story a "calculated admission".
Congressman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, called on Congress to hold Saudi Arabia accountable if Trump does not.
"The announcement that Jamal Khashoggi was killed while brawling with a team of more than a dozen dispatched from Saudi Arabia is not credible," Schiff said in a statement. "If Khashoggi was fighting inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, he was fighting for his life with people sent to capture or kill him."
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, said the Saudi story reeks of a "cover-up".
"It's taken nearly three weeks for the Saudis to even admit that an American resident and journalist died in the Saudis' own consulate," Leahy said in a statement. "And throughout this ordeal, the only urgency apparent in our President's handling of this crisis has been a compulsion to buy time for the Saudis to construct a story to protect the royal family."
Imad Harb, director of research and analysis at Arab Center Washington DC, predicted a struggle between Congress and Trump over the Khashoggi murder.
"The president is trying to defend the Saudi regime and specifically [Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman; and Congress is incredulous as it should be at this news," Harb told MEE. "I think it's going to continue like this - the pull and the push is going to continue until finally it puts it in his head that he [Trump] cannot lie for the Saudi Arabians anymore ... He is doing America a great disservice by believing this."
Harb called the Saudi fight-and-quarrel account absurd.
"It doesn't make any sense whatsoever," he said, questioning why there was a 15-member Saudi squad waiting for Khashoggi at the consulate in the first place.
BREAKING: After weeks of lies, Saudi admits it killed #JamalKhashoggi.
Riyadh now claims it's doing an investigation to find the perpetrators.
That's a complete sham. It's an exercise to exonerate MBS, find scapegoats and protect the House of Saud.https://t.co/iim8QpMMaP
— Trita Parsi (@tparsi) October 19, 2018
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based watchdog, called the Saudi account "ridiculous".
"Now the same government that lied to the world, claiming for weeks that it had no knowledge of Khashoggi's fate, expects us to believe he died in a fight," CPJ executive director Joel Simon said in a statement. "This ridiculous assertion is further evidence of a cover up. We need an international investigation and relentless pressure on Saudi Arabia from the Trump administration, if we ever hope to get to the truth."
Michael Page, deputy director at Human Rights Watch in the Middle East and North Africa, called the Saudi account a "macabre farce".
"If 'initial investigations' found that he died, why did Saudi claim he left the consulate; this new claim is almost Stalinist in its unbelievability, even if many people will parrot this as the truth for their own interests," Page wrote on Twitter.