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US senators demand Trump determine MBS's 'role' in Khashoggi murder

US Senate Foreign Relations Committee officially requests probe into whether Saudi crown prince was responsible for death of journalist
Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October after he went inside the building to retrieve paperwork (Reuters)

The leaders of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee have demanded that the Trump administration examine whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was responsible for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last month.

Republican Senator Bob Corker and Democratic Senator Bob Menendez sent a letter to US President Donald Trump on Tuesday on behalf of the committee to open a second investigation focused on the crown prince to "determine whether a foreign person is responsible for an extrajudicial killing, torture or other gross violation" of human rights.

Earlier on Tuesday, Trump had said in a statement that the US intends to stand by Saudi Arabia, including MBS, despite the "unacceptable and horrible crime" committed against Khashoggi.

"Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!" Trump said in the written statement.

The committee's letter triggers a provision of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act requiring the president to determine whether a foreign person was responsible for a human rights violation.

The request requires the president to "report to the committee within 120 days with a determination and a decision on the imposition of sanctions on that foreign person or persons".

Senior Republican Senator Lindsey Graham predicted strong bipartisan support in Congress for sanctions against Riyadh, "including appropriate members of the royal family".

"While Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, the behavior of the Crown Prince – in multiple ways – has shown disrespect for the relationship and made him, in my view, beyond toxic," Graham said on Twitter.

"I firmly believe there will be strong bipartisan support for serious sanctions against Saudi Arabia, including appropriate members of the royal family, for this barbaric act which defied all civilized norms."

A critic of Saudi government policies and prominent columnist at the Washington Post, Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October after he went inside the building to retrieve paperwork.

On Friday, the CIA said it had concluded that MBS ordered Khashoggi's murder, several US news outlets reported.

However, Trump has sought to shield his Saudi allies from accountability, casting doubt over the US intelligence agency's findings despite pressure from US members of Congress to re-evaluate the US-Saudi relationship.

On Monday, a senior Saudi source told MEE that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had handed MBS and King Salman a plan to help them weather the fallout from the Khashoggi scandal two weeks after the journalist went missing. The US State Department denied the allegation.

Acknowledging in his statement on Tuesday "the different direction" some US politicians have urged him to take vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia, Trump said he would "consider whatever ideas are presented ...  but only if they are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America".

"As President of the United States I intend to ensure that, in a very dangerous world, America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm. Very simply it is called America First!"