A court in Turkey suspended the absentia murder trial of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and transferred the case to Saudi Arabia on Thursday. The decision comes amid warnings from journalist bodies and human rights groups that transferring the case over to Saudi Arabia would lead to a kingdom cover-up of the killing, which has cast suspension on Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman.
Jamal Khashoggi, a United States resident who was critical of the Crown Prince, was killed in October 2018 in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. He had gone to the consulate for an appointment and to collect documents for his marriage, but never left the building. Investigations by government agencies and by the news media, such as the New York Times and Washington Post, have concluded that Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate by a group of Saudi agents and his body was dismembered with a bone saw. The group included a forensic doctor, an intelligence officer and two dozen others who were closed to Muhammad Bin Salman. Khashoggi’s remains have not been found.
Last week, the prosecutor in the case had recommended transferring the case to Saudi Arabia, arguing that it would remain inconclusive in Turkey. The country’s justice minister approved the recommendation, saying that the trial in Turkey will be resumed if the Turkish court is not satisfied with the proceedings of the Kingdom. It is not clear whether Saudi Arabia – which has already put some of the accused on trial behind closed doors – would open a new case or continue the case handed over to it.
Istanbul Court’s decision comes at a time when Turkey, which is in a deep economic downturn, has been trying to establish cordial relations with Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region. Some media reports have claimed that Riyadh has made improved relations conditional on Turkey dropping Khashoggi’s murder trial.
The court’s ruling came as a shock for human rights groups that repeatedly urged Istanbul to not transfer the trial 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 bear its responsibility,” said Amnesty International’s secretary-general, Agnès 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?” he asked.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said: “Given the complete lack of judicial independence in Saudi Arabia, the role of the Saudi government in Khashoggi’s killing, its past attempts at obstructing justice, and a criminal justice system that fails to satisfy basic standards of fairness, chances of a fair trial for the Khashoggi case in Saudi Arabia are close to nil.”