ISTANBUL -- A Turkish court ruled Thursday to suspend the trial in absentia of 26 Saudis accused in the gruesome killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and for the case to be transferred to Saudi Arabia, raising fears of impunity for a crime that sparked international outrage.
Khashoggi, a United States resident who wrote critically about Saudi Crown Prince Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was killed on Oct. 2, 2018, at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. He had gone into the consulate for an appointment to collect documents required for him to marry his Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz. He never emerged from the building.
Turkish officials alleged that Khashoggi was killed and then dismembered with a bone saw inside the consulate by a team of Saudi agents sent to Istanbul. The group included a forensic doctor, intelligence and security officers and individuals who worked for the crown prince’s office. His remains have not been found.
The Istanbul 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 the crown prince.
It also comes as Turkey, which is in a deep 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, which had inflamed tensions between two countries.
The move would pave the way to a resolution of disputes between the two regional heavyweights since the 2011 Arab Spring, including Turkey’s support for Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, which Riyadh considers a terrorist group. Turkey also sided with Qatar in a diplomatic dispute that saw Doha boycotted by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Last week, the prosecutor in the case recommended that it be transferred to the kingdom, arguing that the trial in Turkey would remain inconclusive. Turkey’s justice minister supported the recommendation, adding that the trial in Turkey would resume if the Turkish court is not satisfied with the outcome of proceedings in the kingdom. It was not clear, however, if Saudi Arabia, which has already put some of the defendants on trial behind closed doors, would open a new trial.
During Thursday's hearing, lawyers representing Cengiz asked the court not to move the proceedings to Saudi Arabia, the private DHA news agency reported.
“Let’s not entrust the lamb to the wolf,” the agency quoted lawyer Ali Ceylan as telling the court, using a Turkish saying. “Let’s protect the honor and dignity of the Turkish nation.”
The court however, ruled to halt the trial in line with the Justice Ministry's “positive opinion,” DHA reported. It also decided to lift arrest warrants issued against the defendants and gave the sides seven days to lodge any opposition.
There was no immediate reaction from Saudi Arabia to the court’s decision.
Human rights advocates had also urged Turkey not to transfer the case to Saudi Arabia, arguing that justice for Khashoggi would not be delivered by Saudi courts.
“It's a scandalous decision,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, the Turkey director for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, asserting that the court had "rubber stamped" a political decision that would allow the Turkish government to repair its ties with Saudi Arabia.
“In the interest of realpolitik, Turkey is ready to sacrifice justice for an egregious crime on its own soil,” she told The Associated Press. “(The decision) opens the way for other countries to commit assassinations on Turkish territory and get away with it.”
Cengiz said she would continue to seek justice.
“We will continue this (judicial) process with all the power given to me, as a Turkish citizen,” she told reporters outside the courthouse.
“The two countries may be making an agreement, the two countries may be opening a new chapter ... but the crime is still the same crime,” she said. “The people who committed the crime haven't changed. Governments and states must have a principled stance.”
At the time of the crime, Turkey apparently had the Saudi Consulate bugged and shared audio of the killing with the CIA, among others.
The slaying sparked international condemnation. Western intelligence agencies, as well as the U.S. Congress, have said that an operation of such magnitude could not have happened without knowledge of the prince.
Turkey, which had vowed to shed light on the brutal killing, began prosecuting the defendants in absentia in 2020 after Saudi Arabia rejected requests for their extradition. The defendants included two former aides of the prince.
Some of the men were put on trial in Riyadh behind closed doors. A Saudi court issued a final verdict in 2020 that sentenced five mid-level officials and operatives to 20-year jail terms. The court had originally ordered the death penalty, but reduced the punishment after Khashoggi’s son Salah, who lives in Saudi Arabia, announced that he forgave the defendants. Three others were sentenced to lesser jail terms.
Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.