The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Turkey betrays Jamal Khashoggi. Biden must not.

A demonstrator holds a poster with a picture of journalist Jamal Khashoggi outside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 25, 2018. (Osman Orsal/Reuters)
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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sent a hit squad to Istanbul to kill Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi by suffocating and then dismembering him. His body has never been found, nor has the crown prince, known as MBS, been held to account. Now, the slim hope for justice has receded further with Turkey’s decision to abandon the trial in absentia of 26 Saudi nationals for the murder.

On Friday, Turkey’s justice minister, Bekir Bozdag, said the government will recommend the Istanbul court transfer the trial to Saudi Arabia, as the kingdom requested. That means it will be delivered to the bloody hands of the perpetrators, and the truth buried even more deeply than before. What a dishonor to Khashoggi, a renowned Saudi journalist who advocated for free expression and more accountable rule in the Arab world.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan counted Khashoggi as a friend, and in the days and months after the October 2018 murder, he played a leading role in implicating Saudi Arabia and MBS by releasing recordings, surveillance footage and other material that identified the killers. A team of thugs close to MBS traveled to Istanbul with a bone saw and ambushed Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate. The Turkish disclosures pierced the flimsy lies told by Saudi officials, who claimed Khashoggi left the consulate and had not been killed.

The crown prince has denied that he ordered the murder, including in a recent interview with the Atlantic. But the U.S. intelligence community concluded in a 2021 declassified report that MBS “approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.” This was based on his “control of decision-making,” as well as direct involvement of a key adviser and members of his protective detail in the operation.

The trial in Istanbul was only symbolic; the assailants were not present. But the proceeding had value for being held in public, with witness testimonies, in sharp contrast to the travesty of justice in Saudi Arabia. After a closed trial there, authorities announced in December 2019 that five people implicated in the murder had been sentenced to death, and three more were given prison sentences. In September 2020, the five death sentences were commuted to prison time. None were named. Two men known to have directed the operation — former deputy chief of intelligence Ahmed al-Assiri and Saud al-Qahtani, a top aide to MBS — were exonerated.

Mr. Erdogan, an authoritarian who has intensified repression in Turkey since a failed coup attempt against him in 2016, has badly mismanaged the nation’s economy, with inflation soaring above 50 percent. This prompted him to seek better relations in the region, including with long-standing rival Saudi Arabia. Thus the abdication on justice for Khashoggi, a crude and sad betrayal of his friend.

President Biden faces similar pressures to repair ties with the kingdom to cushion possible oil shortages. He must resist any move to go soft on a killer.