Turkey suspends trial of Khashoggi suspects, transfers case to Saudi Arabia

Fiancee of murdered Saudi critic vows to appeal decision, which comes as Ankara seeks to curry favor with regional rivals amid economic crisis

People hold posters of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, near the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, marking the two-year anniversary of his death, October 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
People hold posters of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, near the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, marking the two-year anniversary of his death, October 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

ISTANBUL (AFP) — A Turkish court on Thursday confirmed a halt of the trial in absentia of 26 suspects linked to the killing of Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi and its transfer to Riyadh, a decision that has angered rights groups.

The 59-year-old journalist was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, in a gruesome murder that shocked the world.

A Turkish court began the trial in 2020 with relations tense between the two Sunni Muslim regional powers.

But with Turkey desperate for investment to help pull it out of economic crisis, Ankara has sought to heal the rift with Riyadh. The judge told the court: “We decided to halt and hand over the case to Saudi Arabia.”

Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancee, said Thursday that she would appeal the Turkish court’s decision.

Turkey “is not ruled by a family like in Saudi Arabia. We have a justice system that addresses citizens’ grievances,” she told journalists outside Istanbul’s main court. “We will appeal the decision in line with our legal system.”

Hatice Cengiz, the fiancee of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, talks to members of the media in Istanbul on July 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

The court decision comes almost a week after Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said that he would greenlight a Turkish prosecutor’s request to hand the case over to Saudi Arabia, at the demand of the latter.

The prosecutor said the case was “dragging” because the court’s orders could not be carried since the defendants were foreigners.

Defense lawyer Ali Ceylan told the court on Thursday that there would not be a fair trial in Saudi Arabia.

“Let’s not entrust the lamb to the wolf,” he said, using a Turkish saying.

Another defense lawyer, Gokmen Baspinar, denounced the justice ministry’s move as “against law.”

“There is no prosecution going on in Saudi Arabia at the moment,” he said. “Saudi authorities have concluded the trial and acquitted many suspects.”

Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 29, 2011. (AP /Virginia Mayo, File)

He said the decision to hand over the case to Riyadh would be tantamount to a “breach of Turkish sovereignty” and “an example of irresponsibility against Turkish people.”

The decision has deeply upset rights groups.

The Istanbul tribunal “agreed to transfer the case to the Saudi authorities — in one sentence, just like that. Didn’t even bother to state the lawyers’ requests are rejected,” Milena Buyum, of Amnesty International, said. She tweeted: “Appalling and clearly political decision.”

Five people were handed death sentences by the kingdom over Khashoggi’s killing but a Saudi court in September 2020 overturned them while giving jail terms of up to 20 years to eight unnamed defendants following secretive legal proceedings.

To Riyadh’s dismay, Turkey pressed ahead with the Khashoggi case and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had at the time said the order to kill him came from the “highest levels” of government.

In the years that followed, Saudi Arabia sought to unofficially put pressure on Turkey’s economy, with a boycott on Turkish imports.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, prior to their meeting in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, on July, 23, 2017. (Presidency Press Service/Pool Photo via AP)

Last year, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Riyadh to mend fences with the kingdom.

The transfer of the case to Riyadh removes the last obstacle to normalizing ties.

Cengiz, who attended Thursday’s hearing, urged Ankara to insist on justice despite rapprochement with Saudi in an interview with AFP in February.

“In order for such a thing to not happen again… [Turkey] should not abandon this case,” said Cengiz.

She was left waiting outside the consulate for Khashoggi when he was murdered. He had gone there to obtain paperwork to marry her. His remains have never been found.

Erdogan has sought to improve ties with regional rivals including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in the face of increasing diplomatic isolation that has caused foreign investment to dry up — particularly from the West. In January, he said he was planning a trip to Saudi Arabia as the economy went through a tumultuous period.

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