ISTANBUL — Omar Abdulaziz hit record on his phone and slipped it into the breast pocket of his jacket, he recalled, taking a seat in a Montreal cafe to wait for two men who said they were carrying a personal message from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
When they arrived, Abdulaziz, 27, a Saudi opposition activist, asked why they had come all the way to Canada to see him.
"There are two scenarios," one emissary said, speaking of Abdulaziz in the third person. In the first, he can go back home to Saudi Arabia, to his friends and family. In the second: "Omar goes to prison."
Which will Omar choose? they asked.
To drive home what was at stake, the visitors brought one of Abdulaziz's younger brothers from Saudi Arabia to the meeting. Abdulaziz appealed to his brother to keep calm.
The clandestine recordings — more than 10 hours of conversation — were provided to the Washington Post by Abdulaziz, a close associate of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed Oct. 2 in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, Turkey. Turkey says the journalist was lured to his death and dismembered. Saudi Arabia says he was accidentally killed during a fistfight.
The recordings offer a chilling depiction of how Saudi Arabia tries to lure opposition figures back to the kingdom with promises of money and safety. These efforts have sharply escalated since Mohammed became crown prince last year, rights groups say.
Several of Khashoggi's friends said that senior Saudi officials close to the crown prince had contacted him in recent months, even offering him a high-level job working for the government if he returned to the kingdom. He said he didn't trust the offer, fearing it was a ruse.
According to U.S. intelligence intercepts of Saudi officials, the crown prince had ordered an operation to lure Khashoggi — who had criticized Saudi leaders as a contributing columnist for the Post — back to Saudi Arabia from his home in Virginia and then detain him.
Abdulaziz, who has asylum in Canada, said he had been working on several projects with Khashoggi that may have given the Saudi leadership more reason to want him out of the way. Khashoggi had sent him $5,000 for a project to build an online "army" inside Saudi Arabia to challenge pro-government trolls on the Internet. The pair were also working on a short film, a website tracking human rights, and a pro-democracy project, Abdulaziz said.
This work was supposed to be secret. But Abdulaziz said he was targeted by Saudi spyware this summer. "They had everything," he said. "They saw the messages between us. They listened to the calls."
In the recording made by Abdulaziz, the two visitors say repeatedly that they had come personally from the crown prince. They also mention that they were working on orders from Saud al-Qahtani, a top strategist and enforcer for Mohammed. It was al-Qahtani who, Khashoggi told friends, called him in the months before his disappearance, urging him to end his self-imposed exile and return to Saudi Arabia.
Back in the spring, the assertive 32-year-old crown prince was riding a wave of positive publicity. He had just wrapped up a visit to the United States, where he met such celebrities as Bill Gates, Post owner Jeffrey Bezos and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.
But a chill had already been cast over the Saudi dissident community. In Saudi Arabia, the prince had arrested activists and rounded up businessmen and incarcerated them at the Ritz-Carlton.
Nor were activists outside the country immune. One of Saudi Arabia's most famous female activists, Loujain al-Hathoul, was kidnapped off the street in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and taken to Saudi Arabia. She was released after a few days in detention but placed under a travel ban and asked not to speak publicly. She was later rearrested on charges including contact with "foreign entities."
She remains in jail. Prince Khaled bin Farhan al-Saud, a dissident royal in Germany, said he was the subject of what he believes was a similar plot in September. He said his relatives told him he'd receive a check from the state to help him out of financial difficulty if he traveled to Cairo. He says he hasn't left Germany for seven years for fear of being abducted.
"Saudi is sending a very deliberate and clear signal, saying you are never going to be free," Human Rights Watch Executive Director Sarah Leah Whitson said. "Wherever you are, you are never going to be free to say what you want."
Khashoggi had counseled Abdulaziz to be sure to meet the men in public places and by no means return to the kingdom with them. "He said, 'If you want to take money, it's your decision,''' Abdulaziz recalled. " 'But do not go back; do not trust them.' ''
The two Saudi visitors made their pitch to Abdulaziz at the May 15 meeting in Montreal, saying that Khashoggi is a "headache" but that he was thinking of returning to Saudi Arabia, one man said, adding that Abdulaziz should, too.
Abdulaziz turned down the offer, and the men ultimately left Montreal without him.
In early August, Abdulaziz's two younger brothers were arrested in Saudi Arabia along with eight of his friends, he said, stopping to hold back the tears.
Abdelaziz said he can't give in. "They hacked my phone and jailed my brothers, kidnapped and maybe killed my friend," he said last week. "I'm not going to stop."