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Friends Of Saudi Dissident Worried By Absence At Istanbul Consulate

FILE - In this Jan. 29, 2011, file photo, Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks on his cellphone at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The Washington Post said Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018, it was concerned for the safety of Khashoggi, a
ISTANBUL, Oct 3 (Reuters)

Two people close to Saudi political commentator Jamal Khashoggi, who left his country for the United States last year fearing retribution for his critical views, are concerned about his whereabouts, saying he failed to emerge from Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul on Tuesday.

Khashoggi's Turkish fiancée as well as a close friend contacted by Reuters said he had not exited the diplomatic mission for more than 7-1/2 hours after entering to secure documentation of his divorce so that he could remarry.

The fiancée, who asked not to be named, said she had waited outside the consulate from 1 p.m local time (1000 GMT) and called the police when he had not reappeared.

"I don't know what's happening. I don't know if he's inside or if they took him somewhere else," she said by telephone from outside the compound.

Turkish and Saudi authorities, including the Istanbul consulate and the Saudi Embassy in Washington, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Turkey has had strained relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states since Ankara stood by Qatar in a regional row.

Turkey has also worked with Iran, Saudi Arabia's arch-rival in the Middle East, to try to reduce fighting in northern Syria and Iranian and Turkish military chiefs exchanged visits last year.

When asked whether the U.S. State Department has sought information from the Saudis and the Turks, an official said, "We have seen these reports and are seeking more information at this time."

Khashoggi, a former Saudi newspaper editor and adviser to retired Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal, has lived in self-exile in Washington, D.C., for more than a year.

Since then, he has written columns in the Washington Post criticizing Saudi Arabia's policies towards Qatar and Canada, the war in Yemen, and a crackdown on the media and activists.

"I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice," he wrote in September 2017. "To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. I can speak when so many cannot."

Mohamad Soltan, an Egyptian-American activist who sees Khashoggi regularly in Washington, told Reuters that Khashoggi was in the United States on an O-visa, a temporary residency visa awarded to foreigners "who possess extraordinary ability" in the sciences, arts, education, and other fields and are recognized internationally, and had applied for permanent residency status.

All public protests are banned in Saudi Arabia, as are political parties. Labour unions are illegal, the media are controlled and criticism of the royal family can lead to prison.

Dozens of activists, clerics and intellectuals have been arrested in the past year in a crackdown on potential opponents of the kingdom's absolute rulers. Among them was economist Essam al-Zamil, a friend of Khashoggi's, who was charged this week with joining a terrorist organization, meeting with foreign diplomats and inciting protests.

Scores of businessmen were detained last November in Riyadh's Ritz-Carlton hotel in a separate campaign against corruption, unnerving some foreign investors.

Most of them were released after reaching financial settlements with the authorities.

(Reporting by Sarah Dadouch and Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul, Jonathan Landay and Lesley Wroughton in Washington Editing by Toni Reinhold and Darren Schuettler)