Rights groups raised concerns that the case could be quietly set aside as Turkey and Saudi Arabia seek to mend political ties [File: Sarah Silbiger/Reuters]
Istanbul, Turkey – A Turkish court has asked authorities to check if defendants on trial in absentia for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi already face charges in Saudi Arabia.
The judge asked the Turkish Ministry of Justice to contact counterparts in Saudi Arabia and check if an investigation, prosecution or sentencing had been carried out there against the defendants in the case, in order to avoid retrying them for the same offense in Turkey. The judge set the next hearing for February 24, 2022.
Tuesday’s hearing was the fifth in the trial, which began in 2020. The court is trying 26 Saudi nationals, including a vice-consul and an attache, accused of taking part in the killing of the journalist at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
Khashoggi, who was a well-known critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), had been living abroad and was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 to obtain documents needed to register a marriage.
Soon after he entered the consulate, Khashoggi was killed by a team of Saudi agents, who dismembered and disposed of his body, which has yet to be found. Fellow dissidents who knew Khashoggi, as well as top Turkish officials, have testified alongside Turkish staff working at the consulate over the course of the trial.
Prosecutors are seeking aggravated life imprisonment for four defendants accused of “premeditated murder with monstrous intent,” while 18 others face aggravated life imprisonment for taking part in strangling Khashoggi. Another four people face up to five years in prison for destroying, concealing or tampering with evidence.
‘Justice delayed is justice denied’
The Turkish court has twice rejected a request by the legal team of Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, to include as evidence a US intelligence report that found MBS had approved the operation to capture or kill the journalist.
The report, released in February, found the crown prince not only had decision-making authority in the kingdom to carry out such a killing but also said there was “direct involvement” of a key adviser and members of his security detail.
In previous hearings, the judge told Cengiz the report “would bring nothing to the trial,” and she should instead ask the Istanbul Prosecutor General to include the report in their filings. Prosecutors have so far given no indication they intend to cite the US intelligence report.
Cengiz told Al Jazeera she still hoped the case would provide justice for her fiance. “I hope to get all evidence from the USA, and continue to judge the real killers,” Cengiz said. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
Saudi authorities have said they have already punished those responsible for the murder, which they say was not sanctioned by MBS. Eight people, none of them publicly named, have been jailed by the kingdom for between seven and 20 years, in what rights groups have said is an attempt to give an impression the case is closed. Khashoggi’s children have publicly said they pardoned their father’s killers.
Erol Önderoğlu, a representative of the Turkish chapter of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), attended the hearing and told Al Jazeera no more witnesses are likely to be heard by the court, and raised fears that the case could be quietly set aside as Turkey and Saudi Arabia seek to mend political ties.
Previous hearings have seen diplomats from several Western countries attend, but on Tuesday, only the German consulate sent an observer. The third anniversary of the murder went unmarked this October in Istanbul, a stark contrast with previous memorial services held directly in front of the Saudi consulate with the attendance of both Turkish and US officials and a large media presence.
The ability of the Turkish court to prosecute the Khashoggi murder not only has international implications, but also raises questions of what journalists inside Turkey can expect for their own safety as well, Önderoğlu said.
“We have multi-dimensional concerns. One is related to the commitment of the international community, and now with this case, we have concerns related to the commitment of the Turkish authorities themselves,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The fact that the court twice rejected requests from Hatice Cengiz and her lawyer to include the US intelligence report, and the fact the prosecutor to has given no sign of asking for that report, together with the idea that Turkey and Saudi Arabia are launching a reconciliation and the third anniversary of the murder passed silently in Istanbul – that all give the impression this case is no longer popular.”
“We can no longer pretend the Khashoggi case is at the top of the agenda,” he said.
US report: MBS approved an operation to capture or kill Khashoggi