Saudi Arabia's crown prince Mohammed bin Salman told a senior aide he would go after Jamal Khashoggi "with a bullet" a year before the dissident journalist was killed inside the kingdom's Istanbul consulate, according to a US media report.
U.S. intelligence understood that Mohammed bin Salman, the country's 33-year-old de facto ruler, was ready to kill the journalist, although he may not have literally meant to shoot him, according to the New York Times.
After initially denying any knowledge of Khashoggi's disappearance, the kingdom has acknowledged that a team killed him inside the diplomatic mission but described it as a rogue operation that did not involve the crown prince.
The conversation was intercepted by U.S. intelligence agencies, as part of routine efforts by the National Security Agency and other agencies to capture and store the communications of global leaders, including allied ones, the newspaper reported. It was only recently transcribed, however, because of mounting efforts by U.S. intelligence to find conclusive proof linking the prince to the killing.
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The conversation took place between the crown prince and an aide, Turki Aldakhil, in September 2017 - about 13 months before the killing, the paper said.
The prince said that if Khashoggi could not be enticed to return to Saudi Arabia, then he should be brought back by force. If neither of those methods worked, then he would go after Mr Khashoggi "with a bullet", the paper reported.
The report came after a UN human rights expert looking into the case said the Saudi regime "seriously curtailed and undermined" the Turkish investigation into the murder of Khashoggi. Agnes Callamard, a UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, said the Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist was the victim of a "brutal, premeditated killing planned and perpetrated by officials of the state of Saudi Arabia".
Khashoggi was lured into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on the promise of being given documents that would help him remarry. Inside he was suffocated and then his body was dismembered, according to a Turkish investigation.
In a preliminary report, Callamard said that she had heard "parts of the chilling and gruesome audio material obtained and retained by the Turkish intelligence agency".
Callamard said Turkey's efforts to carry out a proper investigation had "been seriously curtailed and undermined by Saudi Arabia". She said: "Woefully inadequate time and access was granted to Turkish investigators to conduct a professional and effective crime-scene examination and search required by international standards for investigation."
Callamard, a French human rights expert, is due to deliver a final report to the UN human rights council in June. On Thursday she provided an assessment of her visit to Turkey to pursue the investigation, from 28 January and 3 February.
She said that Saudi killers had exploited diplomatic immunity to carry out the murder. "Guarantees of immunity were never intended to facilitate the commission of a crime and exonerate its authors of their criminal responsibility or to conceal a violation of the right to life," Callamard said.
"The circumstances of the killing and the response by state representatives in its aftermath may be described as 'immunity for impunity'."
U.S. intelligence chiefs have told Congress that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, almost certainly ordered the killing or was aware of it, but Donald Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, have insisted that the evidence is incomplete and investigations would continue. Pompeo is due to meet the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, in Washington on Thursday afternoon.
Riyadh has denied the prince was involved. The Saudi public prosecutor has charged 11 men with the murder, saying last month that he would seek the death penalty for five of them.
Callamard said she had "major concerns" about the fairness of the Saudi proceedings and had asked to visit Riyadh. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the sheer brutality of it has brought irreversible tragedy to his loved ones," she said. "It is also raising a number of international implications which demand the urgent attention of the international community including the United Nations."