Change of tune

Jamal Khashoggi
Jamal Khashoggi

WASHINGTON -- The United States said Tuesday it was revoking visas of Saudis involved in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as President Donald Trump ridiculed the kingdom’s response as “one of the worst cover-ups” in history.

The move came as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Khashoggi’s killing inside the Saudis’ Istanbul consulate had been meticulously planned, in a speech that overshadowed a long-planned investment forum in Riyadh.

Saudi leaders have denied involvement in the killing, pushing responsibility down the chain of command.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “strongly said that he had nothing to do with this, this was at a lower level,” US President Donald Trump said, adding he had spoken Monday to the prince and his father King Salman.

Trump said the Saudis had a “very bad original concept” in killing the 59-year-old Saudi insider-turned-critic.

“It was carried out poorly and the cover-up was one of the worst in the history of cover-ups,” Trump said.

“It was a total fiasco,” he later added. “I’m saying they should have never thought about it. Once they thought about it, everything else they did was bad too ... It should have never happened.”

Faced with mounting calls for tough measures by US lawmakers across the political spectrum, the State Department said it had identified 21 Saudis whose visas would either be revoked or who would be ineligible for future visas.

“These penalties will not be the last word on this matter from the United States,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters.

“We are making very clear that the United States does not tolerate this kind of action to silence Mr. Khashoggi, a journalist, through violence,” he said.

The top US diplomat said the Saudi suspects came from “the intelligence services, the royal court, the foreign ministry and other Saudi ministries.”

Pompeo added the United States was also looking into whether to take action under a law named after Sergei Magnitsky, the anti-corruption accountant who died in Russian custody, that would impose financial sanctions on individuals behind Khashoggi’s death.

The initial US action against the Saudis came three weeks after Khashoggi, self-exiled to suburban Washington, vanished in the consulate and following contradictory statements by Trump, who has ruled out major steps such as cutting arms sales to the major defense partner.

‘Brutal murder’

Vice President Mike Pence, in an appearance at The Washington Post, where Khashoggi was a contributing opinion writer, denounced the “brutal murder.”

He added Erdogan’s account — the most substantive remarks on the case by the Turkish leader — “flies in the face” of the Saudis’ earlier assertions.

Saudi Arabia — whose ambitious crown prince has been amassing power — initially claimed Khashoggi left freely after visiting the consulate, where he was completing paperwork for his upcoming marriage.

But as pressure grew, Saudi state media changed the story and said Khashoggi died when an argument descended into a fistfight, an account that was swiftly denounced overseas even if Trump initially said he found it credible.

Erdogan said that a 15-person team came from Riyadh to kill Khashoggi, carrying out reconnaissance outside Istanbul and deactivating security cameras at the consulate.

He said 18 suspects detained by Saudi Arabia should be extradited to Istanbul to face trial and called for an investigation into those with “even the slightest link” to the case.