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Rights groups urge Turkey not to abandon Jamal Khashoggi's murder case

A decision to pass the case to Saudi authorities would 'betray the promise of justice', advocacy groups say
Hatice Cengiz (R), fiancee of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, poses next to a portrait of him on the National Mall in Washington on 1 October 2021.
Hatice Cengiz, fiancee of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, poses next to his portrait at the National Mall in Washington DC, on 1 October 2021 (AFP)
By in
Washington

Rights groups have urged Turkey not to transfer the trial of 26 Saudi nationals charged in the killing of Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi to the kingdom, saying it would be a "cynical abdication" of a promise to seek justice for the murder that happened on Turkish soil.

On Thursday, the Turkish prosecutor cited a lack of progress in apprehending the suspects, non-enforcement of Interpol red notices, and the absence of suspects' testimonies - as reasons the case should be passed on to Saudi authorities.

The Turkish court will decide on the issue next week, but Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said on Friday that he will give a positive opinion on the request.

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If the court agrees to move the case, it would mark a sharp departure from Ankara's original stance, in which it said it was "clear that the judicial system in Turkey is better equipped to genuinely serve the cause of justice in this case".

Erol Onderoglu, the Turkey representative for Reporters Without Borders, monitored the hearing on Thursday and said the prosecutor's decision was "extremely disappointing".

"Handing the case over to Saudi Arabia would be a serious blow to any remaining chance of criminal justice for Jamal Khashoggi’s killers," Onderoglu said in a statement.

"We urge the Turkish courts to do their part to fight impunity for this horrific crime by seeing this case through."

Seth Binder, advocacy officer at the Project on Middle East Democracy (Pomed), told Middle East Eye that the decision represented "another blow for Jamal's family and fiancee Hatice".

Betraying the promise of justice

Turkey's trial in absentia of the Saudi suspects indicted over Khashoggi's gruesome murder, including two former aides to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), began in Istanbul in July 2020.

For years, Riyadh has been pressuring Ankara to drop the case and has claimed its own trial in the kingdom was enough, where 18 individuals were charged with involvement in the murder. Several were later acquitted and only eight were convicted and sentenced to various terms in prison.

The Guardian last year reported that at least three members of the Saudi hit squad were residing and working "in seven-star accommodation" at a government-run security compound in Riyadh.

'The Prosecutor’s request represents a breathtaking and cynical abdication of responsibility on the part of the Turkish government'

- Abdullah Alaoudh, Dawn

In November, the court asked the Saudi government whether the suspects had been tried and received sentences in Saudi Arabia. 

Turkish law suggests the suspects cannot be tried twice for the same charges, which creates a possible way for the case to be dropped.

"The Turkish prosecutor's request to transfer Khashoggi’s murder trial to Saudi Arabia betrays that promise of justice for Jamal Khashoggi, effectively calling upon his murderers to sit in judgment of themselves," said Abdullah Alaoudh, a research director at Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn), an organisation founded to pursue Khashoggi's vision to promote democracy in the region.

"The Prosecutor’s request represents a breathtaking and cynical abdication of responsibility on the part of the Turkish government that would subordinate the rule of law to the dictates of political expediency," Alaoudh said in a statement.

Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi's fiancee, told MEE on Thursday that she was shocked by the prosecutor's demand and was very sad to see that things had reached this point.

However, earlier this year she had noted that the recent thaw in ties between Turkey and Saudi Arabia was a sign of disappointment to come in her search for closure.

Erdogan's pursuit was 'always political'

Relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been at a low point since Khashoggi's murder. The killing took place in October 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, causing outrage in the country, with popular demands for the killers to be brought to justice.

Similar demands were made throughout the halls of US Congress, as American lawmakers were calling on former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden to sanction MBS, who they viewed as responsible for the murder.

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When Biden came into office, he released the intelligence memo concluding the crown prince's responsibility for the murder, expanded sanctions on the team that carried out the operation, but stopped short of sanctioning MBS himself.

Binder said that Erdogan is similarly choosing a reset in ties with Riyadh over justice for Khashoggi.

"Like when President Biden refused to sanction MBS, the Turkish government is choosing the expediency of rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, and its likely economic payoffs, over any semblance of justice and accountability," he told MEE.

"Having no respect for the rule of law or human rights, Erdogan’s pursuit of this case was always political. So to see the Turkish government accede to Saudi demands sadly comes as no surprise."