Turkey opens trial of Saudi suspects in Jamal Khashoggi killing

Campbell MacDiarmid
Turkey has indicted 20 Saudi officials for the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi - AP

Turkey launched a trial on Friday for 20 Saudi officials accused of killing Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, with rights groups saying the prosecution offered the best chance for justice for the slain journalist.

The killing of the Saudi national inside the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in October 2018 caused an international outcry, damaging the reputation of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In March, Istanbul prosecutors indicted the former deputy head of Saudi Arabia’s general intelligence, Ahmed al-Asiri, and former royal court adviser Saud al-Qahtani for instigating “premeditated murder with monstrous intent”.

Prosecutors say 18 other defendants participated in suffocating Khashoggi and disposing of his body, while his fiancee waited for him on the street outside the consulate. Turkish prosecutors issued arrest warrants for the defendants, who are being tried in absentia.

Zeki Demir, a local technician who worked for the consulate, told the court he was asked to light an oven at the consul's residence near the consulate on the day of the killing. 

"There were five to six people there... They asked me to light up the tandoor. There was an air of panic," he said.

Turkish investigators, who were only allowed to search the buildings after they were cleaned and painted, had focused an oven in the residence grounds, according to the indictment.

Khashoggi’s fiancee Hatice Cengiz hopes the trial will reveal fresh information about his murder, including what happened to his body.

“I hope this criminal case in Turkey brings to light the whereabouts of Jamal’s body (and) the evidence against the killers,” she told Reuters.

Khashoggi, 59, was a Washington Post columnist and a former Saudi royal court insider who had grown increasingly critical of Prince Mohammed.

The CIA concluded Prince Mohammed likely ordered the assassination, something he denied, though he said he bore ultimate responsibility as the kingdom’s de facto leader.

A Saudi court in December sentenced five people to death and three to jail over the murder, in a trial criticised as secretive and incomplete.

Members of Khashoggi’s family in Saudi Arabia said they forgave his killers, opening the way for a formal pardon.

Turkey accuses Saudi of obstructing its investigation into the murder, while Riyadh says Turkey failed to share information about its investigation.

The Turkish trial “may be the only chance of accountability for this horrific crime” following Saudi Arabia's “blatant miscarriage of justice”,  according to Rebecca Vincent, Director of International Campaigns for Reporters without Borders.

But she criticised the “disappointing” absence of diplomatic monitors at the opening day,  calling the trial “the most significant development so far in efforts to pursue justice in this case.”

She would ask the Foreign Office to send observers to the trial, she told The Telegraph.

“Is it capacity or is it a political decision? Many countries have not done enough to hold Saudi Arabia to account for this horrific crime,” she said.

The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Agnes Callamard, attended the opening day, saying it represented a chance for justice.

"Justice in these complex environments is not delivered overnight," she told Reuters on the eve of the trial.

"But a good process here can build up (evidence for) what can happen in five years, in 10 years, whenever the circumstances are stronger."

Eight witnesses gave testimony during Friday's three-and-a-half hour hearing. The next session is scheduled for November 24.

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