ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Jamal Khashoggi believed he was safe in Turkey.
Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist and newspaper editor, had lived in exile in Washington for more than a year, writing a column for the Washington Post in which he regularly criticized his country’s crackdown on dissent, its war in Yemen and sanctions imposed on Qatar.
He said he could write freely in the United States in a way that was impossible at home, according to friends and colleagues, but he was increasingly worried that Riyadh could hurt him or his family.
In Turkey, though, Khashoggi had friends in high places, including some of President Tayyip Erdogan’s advisers. So when he walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 2, he hoped the appointment would be brief, a simple bureaucratic task that would allow him to marry his Turkish fiancee, whom he had met four months earlier.
“He said the safest country in the world for Saudi Arabians was Turkey,” said Yasin Aktay, an Erdogan aide and close friend of Khashoggi.
Friends and family have not seen him since.
Turkish officials have said they believe Khashoggi, 59, was killed inside the consulate.
"He said the safest country in the world for Saudi Arabians was Turkey" Yasin Aktay, an Erdogan aide and close friend of Khashoggi
Saudi Arabia has strongly rejected the accusation. The kingdom’s ambassador to the United States, Prince Khalid bin Salman, said reports suggesting Khashoggi went missing in the Istanbul consulate or that Saudi Arabia had killed him “are absolutely false and baseless” and a product of “malicious leaks and grim rumors.”
”Jamal is a Saudi citizen who went missing after leaving the Consulate,” the ambassador said in a statement. Saudi Arabia has sent a team of investigators to work with Turkish authorities and “chase every lead to uncover the truth behind his disappearance.”
In interviews, Turkish officials provided new details of their investigation into the missing journalist.
Two senior Turkish officials revealed the existence of an object that may provide important clues to Khashoggi’s fate: the black Apple watch he was wearing when he entered the consulate. The watch was connected to a mobile phone he left outside, they said.
Investigators are also focusing on 15 Saudi men who entered the consulate around the same time as Khashoggi and left a short time later. These men had arrived hours earlier from Riyadh, most of them by private plane, the officials said. By the end of the day, they were on their way back to the kingdom.
Turkish newspaper Sabah said on Wednesday it had identified the 15 as members of a Saudi intelligence team. They included a forensic expert. A Turkish official did not dispute the report.
And investigators are trying to trace a vehicle that left the Saudi consulate at the same time as two cars destined for the airport, one of the officials said. This vehicle didn’t turn toward the airport, but set off in the opposite direction.
This story is based on interviews with Turkish officials, Khashoggi’s fiancee and more than a dozen of his friends, who gave insight into the columnist’s state of mind in the days leading up to his disappearance, and explained why he went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, not the embassy in his adopted home of Washington.
The case threatens to drive wedges between Saudi Arabia and Turkey and between Riyadh and its western allies. U.S. President Donald Trump said on Oct. 9 he plans to speak with Saudi Arabian officials about Khashoggi’s disappearance. The mystery also threatens to undermine Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s drive to attract foreign investors and new high-tech business to a country that is too dependent on oil revenues.