Trial of Saudi officials over Khashoggi killing begins in Turkey

A Turkish trial in absentia of 20 Saudi officials accused of killing the journalist Jamal Khashoggi opened in Istanbul on Friday. 

Khashoggi, a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia's powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

Those being tried include two former top aides to bin Salman. Saudi Arabia carried out a separate trial over the killing that was heavily criticised for being biased and incomplete.

Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, and the United Nations special rapporteur Agnès Callamard waited for the judges to arrive in a courtroom at the courthouse complex in Istanbul’s Çağlayan neighbourhood shortly before it was set to begin at 10 a.m. Turkish time, the Guardian said. 

“I hope this criminal case in Turkey brings to light the whereabouts of Jamal’s body (and) the evidence against the killers,” Hatice Cengiz told Reuters this week. She was waiting for Khashoggi outside the consulate on the day he was killed.

Khashoggi, 59, was once a member of the Saudi elite but became increasingly critical of the crown prince, and moved to Washington D.C. He worked as a columnist for the Washington Post.

He visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018 to collect paperwork for his marriage to Cengiz, but never emerged from the building.

According to the Turkish indictment, based on analysis of phone and computer records and witness statements, investigators concluded that Khashoggi was strangled to death. Turkish investigators have also alleged that Khashoggi’s body was dismembered with a bone saw and then dissolved in acid on the consulate premises.

The indictment issued in March by Istanbul prosecutors accused the former deputy head of Saudi Arabia’s general intelligence, Ahmed al-Asiri, and the former royal court adviser, Saud al-Qahtani - both in Salman’s inner circle – of “premeditated murder with monstrous intent”. Turkey is seeking life imprisonment in all 20 cases.

The gruesome killing of Khashoggi plunged Saudi Arabia into its worst diplomatic crisis in two decades, and tarnished bin Salman’s reputation as a liberal reformer after many questioned how such an operation could take place without his knowledge or consent. The CIA, along with several western governments, concluded that the crown prince was involved in the killing of Khashoggi. 

Saudi Arabia has denied the allegations and says rogue agents took a repatriation mission too far. 

Saudi Arabia has rejected Turkish calls for the suspects to face trial in Turkey. In December 2019, a Saudi court sentenced five unidentified people to death over Khashoggi’s killing but effectively exonerated men close to the crown prince.

Callamard and several rights groups have repeatedly called for an independent international investigation into the journalist’s death. The Turkish investigation has faced accusations of bias as Ankara has used the killing to exert pressure on its Saudi regional rivals, drip-feeding details to the media and sharing audio recordings of the murder with other governments.