Washington (AFP) -
The United States on Friday for the first time publicly accused Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of approving the gruesome murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, unveiling a raft of punitive measures but stopping short of directly targeting the powerful heir apparent.
The prince, who is de facto ruler of the longtime US ally and oil provider, 'approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,' said an intelligence report newly declassified by President Joe Biden's administration.
The report said that given Prince Mohammed's influence, it was 'highly unlikely' that the 2018 murder could have taken place without his green light. The killing also fit a pattern of 'the crown prince's support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad.'
Khashoggi, a critic of Prince Mohammed who wrote for The Washington Post and was a US resident, was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, then killed and cut into pieces.
The Treasury Department announced it was freezing assets and criminalizing transactions with a former Saudi intelligence official as well as the Rapid Intervention Force, an elite unit that the report said 'exists to defend the crown prince' and 'answers only to him.'
But the United States stopped short of directly targeting the 35-year-old crown prince, who has broadly accepted Saudi Arabia's responsibility but denies any personal involvement.
In honor of the slain writer, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the 'Khashoggi Act' that will ban entry into the United States of foreigners who threaten dissidents or harass reporters and their families.
'We have made absolutely clear that extraterritorial threats and assaults by Saudi Arabia against activists, dissidents and journalists must end. They will not be tolerated by the United States,' Blinken said in a statement.
Biden's decision to release the report -- first completed under Donald Trump -- was a sharp departure from his predecessor, who had vowed to keep working with Saudi Arabia due to the kingdom's lavish purchases of US weapons and shared hostility toward Iran.
Biden spoke by telephone late Thursday with 85-year-old King Salman after the White House made clear he had no intention of speaking to the crown prince, who had formed a friendship with Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner.
- Fatal consulate appointment -
A veteran Saudi journalist and editor, Khashoggi was in self-exile and residing in the United States, writing articles critical of the crown prince when he was assassinated on October 2, 2018.
The writer had been told by Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States to go to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul if he wanted to obtain documents for his forthcoming marriage to a Turkish woman, Hatice Cengiz.
There, the 59-year-old was killed and his body dismembered by a 15-member team sent from Riyadh under the direction of a top aide to Prince Mohammed, Saud al-Qahtani.
The intelligence report listed the 15 Saudis and said that seven came from the Rapid Intervention Force, which it said had earlier acted to suppress dissent in the kingdom and abroad.
The Central Intelligence Agency had quickly concluded with high confidence that Prince Mohammed had ordered the assassination.
But, determined to maintain strong relations with Riyadh, Trump refused to publicly hold the Saudi strongman responsible and had vowed to move on.
A US official acknowledged that the Biden administration will still have to deal with Prince Mohammed on issues ranging from oil, diplomacy with Iran and the devastating Saudi-led war in Yemen from which Biden has cut US support.
'I think that's just obviously reality and something that is likely to continue,' the official said of interaction with the crown prince.
The official said that Saudi Arabia needs to make progress on domestic reforms and 'that includes reversals of self destructive policies such as detention of human rights activists, including Saudi-American citizens.'
- Question of justice-
Few observers of Saudi Arabia believe the murder could have taken place without the knowledge of Prince Mohammed, a calculating strongman who has jailed a number of critics and locked up competing factions in the royal family.
Under heavy pressure from the United States and the international community, the Saudi government put some of the perpetrators on trial.
The closed-door trial exonerated the two officials widely seen as the masterminds: Qahtani, the royal court's media adviser, and deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri -- who was slapped with sanctions Friday by the Treasury Department.
Both are part of Prince Mohammed's inner circle.
Five unnamed defendants were sentenced to death and three others given stiff prison terms. Nine months later, the death sentences were withdrawn by the court and replaced with sentences of up to 20 years.
Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders both branded the case a 'parody of justice.'
But it assuaged the Trump administration, whose main action was to place 17 suspects in the case, including Qahtani but not Assiri, on its sanctions blacklist.