Turkish court suspends trial of 26 Saudis accused of killing Jamal Khashoggi

Case transferred to Saudi Arabia despite warnings move would lead to cover-up

A Turkish court on Thursday halted the trial of Saudi suspects over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and transferred it to Saudi Arabia, a ruling that drew condemnation from rights groups and comes as Ankara mends ties with Riyadh.

The decision was expected after the prosecutor called last week for the trial in absentia of 26 Saudi suspects to be transferred from Istanbul to Riyadh. The justice minister later endorsed the request, which was initially sought by Riyadh.

Mr Khashoggi’s killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul four years ago raised a global outcry and put pressure on Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Turkish officials said they believe Mr Khashoggi, a prominent critic of the crown prince, was killed and his body dismembered in an operation which the president Tayyip Erdogan said had been ordered at the “highest levels” of the Saudi government.

Hatice Cengiz, Mr Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancee, who was waiting outside the consulate on October 2nd, 2018, when he entered to retrieve documents for their upcoming marriage, said she was surprised and saddened by the “political” decision.

“The case was slowly coming to a halt in previous hearings. . . and I had begun to grow hopeless but I did not expect such a decision,” she told Reuters. “Saudi Arabia is a country where we know there is no justice. No one expects a just decision there.”

In 2020, Saudi Arabia jailed eight people for between seven and 20 years for Mr Khashoggi's murder. None of the defendants were named, in what rights groups described as a sham trial. The Turkish court's ruling marks a sharp turnaround in the trial that began in 2020, especially given public statements from officials that Turkey needs to handle the case to serve justice. Mr Erdogan said in December 2018 that Turkey would not hand over evidence to Riyadh because they could destroy it, while criticising their changing accounts of how Mr Khashoggi was murdered. "They think the world is dumb. This nation isn't dumb and it knows how to hold people accountable," Mr Erdogan said at the time.

Intelligence report

A US intelligence report released a year ago said Prince Mohammed had approved the operation to kill or capture Mr Khashoggi, but the Saudi government denied any involvement by the crown prince and rejected the report’s findings.

Proceedings in the case, which received widespread support from officials when it was launched, had slowed in later hearings. The court had refused to add a US intelligence report to the file, while also requesting information from Riyadh to avoid duplicating punishment.

Gokmen Baspinar, a lawyer for Ms Cengiz, said on Thursday the decision to transfer the case to Saudi Arabia was against the law, adding that it meant handing over Turkey’s sovereignty. “The fact that the trial is being transferred to a country where there is no justice is an example of irresponsibility against the Turkish people,” Mr Baspinar told the court.

The Saudi government media office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The killing and subsequent accusations strained ties between the two Sunni Muslim regional powers and led to an unofficial Saudi boycott of Turkish goods, which cut Ankara’s exports to Riyadh by 90 per cent. But with Turkey keen for investment to boost its economy, Ankara has sought over the last year to heal the rift with Riyadh.

Ms Cengiz told Reuters that Turkey should not give up on its principles to repair ties with another country, and should have held a stronger stance. “That such a thing has happened has opened up the judicial process in Turkey to controversy. It is saddening in this regard,” she said outside Istanbul’s main courthouse.

She said on Thursday she will continue to seek justice.