(Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler approved an operation to capture or kill murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, according to U.S. intelligence released on Friday as the United States imposed sanctions on some of those involved but spared the crown prince himself in an effort to preserve relations with the kingdom.
Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who wrote opinion columns for the Washington Post critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s policies, was killed and dismembered by a team of operatives linked to the prince in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.
The Saudi government, which has denied any involvement by the crown prince, issued a statement rejecting the U.S. report’s findings and repeating its previous statements that Khashoggi’s killing was a heinous crime by a rogue group.
U.S. President Joe Biden tried to make clear that killings of political opponents were not acceptable to the United States while preserving ties to the 35-year-old crown prince, who may rule one of the world’s top oil exporters for decades and be an important ally against common foe Iran.
In a television interview on Friday, Biden said he told Saudi King Salman that Saudi Arabia has to tackle human rights abuses as a precondition to dealing with the United States.
“(I) made it clear to him that the rules are changing and we’re going to be announcing significant changes today and on Monday,” Biden said on Spanish language network Univision.
Among the punitive steps the United States took on Friday, it imposed a visa ban on some Saudis believed involved in the Khashoggi killing and placed sanctions on others, including a former deputy intelligence chief, that would freeze their U.S. assets and generally bar Americans from dealing with them.
U.S. officials also said they were considering cancelling arms sales to Saudi Arabia that pose human rights concerns and limiting future sales to “defensive” weapons, as it reassesses its relationship with the kingdom and its role in the Yemen war.
“We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in the four-page report.
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The intelligence agency based its assessment on the crown prince’s control of decision-making, the direct involvement of one of his key advisers and his own protective detail, and his “support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi,” it added.