A court in Turkey transferred the trial in the murder of the Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia on Thursday, a move almost certain to end the last case that held out hope of serving some measure of justice for a heinous crime that drew global outrage.
Kaghoggi, a United States resident who wrote for the Washington Post, was killed on Oct. 2, 2018, at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, where he had gone for an appointment to collect documents required for him to marry his Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz. He never emerged from the building.
The court’s decision comes despite warnings from human rights groups that turning the case over to the kingdom would lead to a cover up of the killing which has cast suspicion on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
It also comes as Turkey, which is in the throes of an economic downturn, has been trying to repair its troubled relationship with Saudi Arabia and an array of other countries in its region. Some media reports have claimed that Riyadh has made improved relations conditional on Turkey dropping the case against the Saudis.
The Turkish decision was a blow to human rights advocates who had hoped the trial in Turkey would at least make public more evidence of who was involved and how Mr. Khashoggi was killed and dismembered by a Saudi hit squad in 2018 inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, where he had gone to get paperwork he needed to marry his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz.
“Let’s not entrust the lamb to the wolf,” Ali Ceylan, a lawyer for Ms. Cengiz, told the court on Thursday before the decision was announced. “Let’s protect the dignity and honor of the Turkish nation, and let’s not make such a decision.”
Ceylan reminded the court that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Turkish officials had said that justice did not exist in Saudi Arabia.
Last week, following a decision of the court prosecuting the case to ask his opinion on whether to halt the trial, Bekir Bozdag, Turkey's justice minister, responded that the Turkish government will recommend that the trial-in-absentia of the 26 Saudi nationals charged with the murder of journalist Khashoggi be halted, and the case be transferred to Saudi Arabia.
As acknowledged by the minister’s own government, transferring the case of Khashoggi’s murder to Saudi Arabia is knowingly and willingly deciding to allow the Saudi authorities to cover it up. After all, the Saudi system has repeatedly failed to cooperate with the Turkish prosecutor. It is clear that justice cannot and will not be delivered by a Saudi court.
The Turkish trial, which opened in 2020, was largely symbolic because Saudi Arabia had refused to extradite the suspects and Turkish law does not allow convictions of people who have not testified. The Saudi authorities claim it was “a rogue operation”.
On March 31, the Turkish prosecutor in charge of the Khashoggi case requested to move the trial to Saudi Arabia, the very country that ordered the assassination. The prosecutor’s move was a surprising turnabout by the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who counted Khashoggi as a friend.
In the days and months after the killing, the Turkish government played a key role in implicating Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, in the killing by releasing recordings, surveillance footage and other material.
Handing the case over to Saudi Arabia, a repressive regime lacking even the pretenses of a free press or independent judiciary, would deal a serious blow to any remaining chance of justice for Khashoggi’s killers.
Human rights advocates had urged Turkey not to transfer the case to Saudi Arabia.
“By transferring the case of a murder that was committed on its territory, Turkey will be knowingly and willingly sending the case back into the hands of those who bare its responsibility,” said Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnes Callamard. “Indeed, the Saudi system has repeatedly failed to cooperate with the Turkish prosecutor and it is clear that justice cannot be delivered by a Saudi court.”
“What has happened to Turkey’s declared commitment that justice must prevail for this gruesome murder and that this case would never become a pawn in political calculations and interest?” she asked.
(with inputs from AP)