Supporters of missing Saudi columnist call for US investigation into his disappearance
WASHINGTON — Just beyond the metal-framed double doors of the Saudi Embassy in Washington, protesters gathered Wednesday to stand vigil for Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who has not been heard from since he disappeared inside a Saudi consulate in Turkey last week.
They offered memories of the columnist and prayers for his family and fiancee. They demanded answers from the Saudi government — and action from the Trump administration.
‘‘When the Saudis commit acts of violence, it has always been with a wink and a nod from the United States,’’ said Madea Benjamin, the codirector of Code Pink, which organized Wednesday’s protest. ‘‘This did not start with Donald Trump. They have been emboldened for years and it has been a bipartisan problem.’’
Earlier, Representative Gerald Connolly, Democrat of Virginia, and several prominent activists joined a growing chorus of Americans calling on the Trump administration to lead an independent probe into Khashoggi’s sudden disappearance.
At a news conference in front of the Washington Post, Connolly said that President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo must demand answers from the Saudi government and make it ‘‘crystal clear’’ that the United States will not stand for the killing of journalists.
White House press secretary said senior White House officials, including Pompeo, had contacted Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, on Tuesday, and asked for more information about what happened on Oct. 2, the last day Khashoggi was seen.
‘‘If the Saudis are complicit in this alleged crime, they’re the wrong party to investigate,’’ Connolly said.
Khashoggi, a prominent journalist and critic of the Saudi government, had gone to the Saudi Consulate that day to finalize papers for his upcoming wedding. Turkish officials believe Khashoggi was killed inside.
The Saudi government has denied involvement, insisting Khashoggi left the consulate alive and well.
‘‘If they did this, they will be held accountable and there will be penalties,’’ Connolly said. ‘‘So far [the Trump administration’s] responses have been awfully anemic and not acceptable. We need a robust, strong, fortified US position that makes it crystal clear that this is not acceptable behavior and those responsible for it will be held to account, no matter how high up it may go.’’
At the White House on Wednesday, Trump told reporters it was a ‘‘bad situation,’’ and added, ‘‘we can’t let this happen to reporters, to anybody. . . . We’ll have to find out who did it.’’
Khashoggi, a contributor to the Post’s Global Opinion section, fled to the United States more than a year ago after he was banned from tweeting and his writings were censored in Saudi Arabia, friends said. He lived in a sort of self-imposed exile in northern Virginia near Tysons, away from friends and family.
Connolly, who represents the district where Khashoggi lived, said the journalist had been granted asylum in the United States and was under ‘‘American protection.’’
Turkish investigators suspect a squad of 15 men from Saudi Arabia were involved in the abduction or killing of Khashoggi and have begun to piece together a timeline.
If the allegations against the Saudi government are proven true, Connolly said, ‘‘the Saudis will have to account for themselves and they’re going to pay a high price, I hope, for committing violence against an innocent who trusted a consulate was a safe haven in which to do business — not an abattoir.’’
Connolly said he was not privy to information regarding any possible threats against Khashoggi that had been intercepted by US intelligence. But he recently learned that Khashoggi had visited the Saudi consulate days before his disappearance and ‘‘felt secure’’ enough to return.
‘‘That was the setup,’’ he said. ‘‘If [the United States] had intelligence it should have been shared. That was a life-threatening threat.’’
Protesters held photos of Khashoggi and signs denouncing the monarchy.
Khaled Saffuri, a close friend of Khashoggi for more than two decades and cofounder of the Islamic Free Market Institute, said a senior adviser to the crown prince contacted Khashoggi in June and offered the journalist safe passage home should he choose to return. Saffuri said Khashoggi told him he wouldn’t go.
Ali al-Ahmed, a prominent Saudi analyst and critic, said the United States should hold the crown prince personally responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance.
‘‘Mohammed bin Salman is the mad king of Saudi Arabia, and Jamal Khashoggi is not his first or his last victim,’’ Ahmed told a crowd of more than three dozen spectators and journalists. ‘‘Tell him he is not welcome here.’’