Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul insisted on Thursday that a missing Saudi dissident had left its premises before disappearing – directly contradicting comments by Turkish officials who say they believe he’s still inside.
The comments further deepen the mystery surrounding what happened to Jamal Khashoggi, who had been living in a self-imposed exile in the United States while writing columns critical of the kingdom and its policies under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Khashoggi’s disappearance also threatened to further deteriorate relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which are on opposite sides of an ongoing four-nation boycott of Qatar and other regional crises.
In a statement carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency, the consulate did not challenge that Khashoggi, 59, disappeared while on a visit to the diplomatic post.
“The consulate confirmed that it is carrying out follow-up procedures and coordination with the Turkish local authorities to uncover the circumstances of the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi after he left the consulate building,” it said without elaborating.
The statement comes after a spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters Wednesday night that authorities believed the journalist was still there.
“According to the information we have, this person who is a Saudi citizen is still at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul,” Ibrahim Kalin said. “We don’t have information to the contrary.”
On Tuesday, Khashoggi entered the consulate to get paperwork he needed in order to be married next week, said his fiancée Hatice, who gave only her first name for fear of retribution.
He gave her his mobile phones for safekeeping, a common occurence as many embassies routinely require that phones be left outside as a security precaution.
Hours later, Khashoggi hadn’t emerged and Hatice recounted how she called his friends in a panic.
“I don’t know what has happened to him. I can’t even guess how such a thing can happen to him,” she told The Associated Press.
“There is no law or lawsuit against him. He is not a suspect, he has not been convicted. There is nothing against him. He is just a man whose country doesn’t like his writings or his opinions.”
The Washington Post, which Khashoggi writes for, said it was “extremely concerned” about him.
“We have reached out to anyone we think might be able to help locate him and assure his safety, including US, Turkish and Saudi officials,” editorial page editor Fred Hiatt said in a statement.
Khashoggi has written regular columns in the Washington Post criticising Saudi Arabia’s policies towards Qatar and Canada, the war in Yemen, and a crackdown on dissent and the media and activists that has seen dozens detained.
“I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice,” he wrote in September 2017. “To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. I can speak when so many cannot.”
Ali Shihabi, head of the Arabia Foundation in Washington, which regularly supports Saudi policy, expressed concern on Twitter about the reports.
“Jamal and I have not seen eye to eye on many issues but having him go missing like this is awful,” he said.
Khashoggi is a longtime Saudi journalist, foreign correspondent, editor and columnist whose work has been controversial in the past in the ultraconservative kingdom. He went into a self-imposed exile in the US following the ascension of Prince Mohammed, now next in line to the throne of his father, 82-year-old King Salman.
Khashoggi was known for his interviews and travels with Osama bin Laden between 1987 and 1995, including in Afghanistan, where he wrote about the battle against the Soviet occupation. In the early 1990s, he tried to persuade bin Laden to reconcile with the Saudi royal family and return home from his base in Sudan, but the al-Qaeda leader refused.