A Deal in the Making?

We may see a ‘Megrahi Scenario’ being applied to cover up the Khashoggi Affair

By Abdel Bari Atwan

In his recent comments, US President Donald Trump gave us an indication of how the case of the Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, who went into his country’s consulate in Istanbul last Tuesday and never reappeared, may be resolved and covered up.

Trump’s remarks to his favourite TV channel Fox News on Thursday were both shocking and untrue. He claimed that American investigators were working with Ankara and Riyadh to probe the crime of Khashoggi’s disappearance. But the Turkish authorities quickly refuted this assertion, declaring that their own investigators were fully competent and did not need the help of the Americans or anyone else to look into the case. Moreover, Trump’s professed sympathy for the victim of this crime was distinctly lukewarm, unenthusiastic and unsympathetic. His remarks were also muddled, declaring that the US was working with Turkish and Saudi investigators even though we have yet to hear of any Saudi investigation being launched. He simply stated the obvious — that Khashoggi apparently went into the consulate and was never seen leaving. He sufficed with inviting his fiancée to visit the White House and have her photo taken in front of the famous fireplace… and then let bygones be bygones.

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The key point here is that while the US administration appears to be unsettled by the affair, it is unwilling to take any measures against Saudi Arabia, even if Riyadh’s involvement in the crime were to be proven. In the same interview, Trump stressed there could be no question about curbing arms sales to Saudi Arabia. These are worth some $110 billion to the US and sustain many American jobs, he said, and discontinuing them would be a “very, very tough pill to swallow for our country.” He also lambasted the 22 members of Congress who called for sanctions against Saudi Arabia in line with the Magnitsky Act, saying they were acting prematurely and warningthat such a move would harm the US.

Trump’s words give the impression that the real priority is to reach a behind-the-scenes deal over the incident rather than try to find out what actually happened. There is an active channel of communication in this regard between three US officials -– National Security Advisor John Bolton; Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner; and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman A separate Turkish-Saudi channel was also opened up — with a high-level delegation led by Prince Khaled al-Faisal arriving in Ankara — amid indications that Ankara wants to avoid a confrontation with Saudi Arabia and is seeking a ‘compromise solution’ instead.

Turkish newspapers loyal to the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) have toned down their coverage of the crime in the past couple of two days, in contrast to the US media. The pro-government daily Sabah,which earlier broke and documented the news of the arrival in Turkey of a 15-member Saudi assignation squad, asserted on Friday that no human remains were detected when the Saudi security team’s bags were scanned before they left Istanbul airport aboard two private jets. If true, this reshuffles many cards and undermines many assumptions regarding claims that his corpse was cut into pieces.

Quoting three sources informed about the Turkish investigations, the US TV network NBC reportedthat Ankara told Washington it had eavesdropping equipment inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and audiotapes confirming that Khashoggi was killed by a professional Saudi security team that flew in from Riyadh for that purpose. Other reports have said that Turkish intelligence checked the sewers outside the Saudi consulate and found forensic evidence, possibly blood.

More importantly, Turkish intelligence confirmed that one of the members of this Saudi squad was a senior pathologist working for the interior ministry. The picture taken of him matched that on his Facebook profile. This naturally raised questions about his role: Was he sent there to carry out an autopsy, dismember the corpse, or drug the victim as a prelude to transporting him to Riyadh – as had been done to other opposition figures and princes before?

There are only two realistic possibilities: Either Khashoggi was murdered, though the fate and location of his corpse remain unknown. Or he was taken alive to Saudi Arabia, just like those other opposition figures and princes, some of whom were later liquidated while others were placed under house arrest.

A close friend and confidant of Khashoggi told us that he believes Saudi intelligence decided to liquidate him because he was planning to establish andlead a human rights organization, to be named al-Fajr (Dawn), that would incorporate a variety of Arab and Saudi opposition figures, based in Istanbul under Turkish protection.

The Saudi authorities are relying on the time factor, believing that the longer the investigations takes, the less international and Arab and media interest there will be in this crime. Trump and his advisors appear to be banking on this too. The West, they figure, looks after its own interests: Germany ended up apologising after its spat with Saudi Arabia; Spain retracted its decision to halt arms sales in protest at the Yemen war; and Canada is about to go the same way — after its former ambassador in Riyadh publicly regretted his government’s interference in domestic Saudi affairs by calling for the release of prisoners of conscience.

In short: Deals take precedence over human rights for most, if not all, Western governments, and any exceptions to this rule are rare. Those who think otherwise do not really know Western governments, especially the US administration. Trump’s remarks provide sufficient confirmation of this.  So does the surprise release of the Turkey-based US evangelist Andrew Brunson, who had been charged with links to terrorist organisations and to instigators of the recent military coup attempt.

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This all brings to mind the case of the 1988 Lockerbie Bombing, the downing of an American airliner over Scotland which was eventually blamed on two Libyan intelligence officers. This verdict was the result of a deal brokered, ironically, by the Saudis – specifically by Prince Bandar Bin-Sultan – under which it was agreed that minor officials would be charged with and tried for the crime, while Col. Muammar al-Gaddafi and other regime leaders would be spared prosecution.

I know about this. After the trial, I was repeatedly contacted by Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Libyan intelligence officer who was convicted and given a life sentence for the bombing. I was reluctant to get involved in the issue at first. But eventually I went to see him in his prison in Glasgow, and we spoke for more than three hours. I was shocked by what he had to say and it still makes me angry. He swore by God that he had nothing to do with the bombing, that he would have confessed if he had done, and that he was used as a scapegoat. He showed me the heavily redacted documents that were used in his prosecution and demanded to know what secrets had been concealed. He said he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and had only a few more months to live, and that he only wanted it to be known that he was innocent. He was released shortly afterwards on humanitarian grounds and indeed died a few months later in Libya.

The same thing may now happen in this case. Two or three people may be identified as Khashoggi’s kidnappers and/or killers, and turned into scapegoats while the king and crown prince are absolved. We hope this does not happen, and that there will be a proper investigation and that those responsible are held to account. But the signs are that both the Saudi and Turkish sides, as well as the US, would prefer to let things be, and to move on.