ISTANBUL — In a dramatic about-face, a Turkish prosecutor requested Thursday to move the trial of suspects linked to the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia, which sent the operatives who carried out the deadly assault, according to local media and a person who attended the hearing.
The prosecutor said the request to halt the Turkish trial followed a Saudi transfer request earlier in March, according to Erol Onderoglu, the Turkey representative for Reporters Without Borders who attended the hearing in a criminal court in Istanbul. The court referred the matter to Turkey’s Ministry of Justice, he said.
Facing economic woes, including a weak currency and soaring cost of living, Turkey has sought to improve relations with Saudi Arabia in recent months.
If the ministry approves, “it will have terrible consequences for the idea of justice,” Onderoglu said. All the defendants are being tried in absentia and are believed to be in Saudi Arabia.
The prosecutor’s action represents a significant turnabout by the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In the days and months after the murder, Erdogan, who counted Khashoggi as a friend, played a leading role in implicating Saudi Arabia and its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the killing.
Turkey released recordings, surveillance footage and other material that revealed a team of Saudi operatives had traveled to Istanbul and waited in the Saudi Consulate for Khashoggi, who was a contributing columnist for The Washington Post. The operatives then killed and dismembered him. His remains were never found.
Turkey’s release of evidence — and Erdogan’s outspoken disgust at the killing — spurred international outrage at Saudi Arabia for a time. Recently, as Turkey’s economy has struggled with inflation topping 50 percent, Erdogan has sought better relations with the kingdom as well as other countries in the Middle East.
The trial in Turkey was seen by some as symbolic since the defendants were absent. But the proceedings were held in public, with witness testimonies, in sharp contrast to a trial that was carried out behind closed doors in Saudi Arabia, Onderoglu said.
But in recent months, he added, it was clear that Turkey was no longer interested in pursuing the case. The court had refused to consider as evidence a U.S. intelligence report that found the Saudi crown prince had “approved” the operation that led to Khashoggi’s death.
“The recent diplomatic rapprochement between Turkey and Saudi Arabia has intensified our doubt in the search for justice in Turkey,” Onderoglu said, adding that the “international community” was also reluctant to pursue accountability.
In court Thursday, prosecutors noted the missing defendants and said attempts to pursue them through Interpol had been fruitless, Onderoglu said. Turkish officials have repeatedly denied that the judiciary is susceptible to government pressure. The next hearing is scheduled for April 7.
Saudi Arabia said in September 2020 that it had convicted eight people for the killing but did not name them. Saudi officials have denied that the crown prince ordered Khashoggi’s murder.
Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancee, also attended the hearing Thursday. In a message posted on Twitter afterward, she wrote about the decision facing Turkey’s Justice Ministry “showing the dilemma facing humanity in the modern era.”
“Which of the two will we choose?” she wrote. “To want to live like a virtuous human being or to build a life by holding material interests above all kinds of values. #justiceforjamal.”
Zeynep Karatas contributed to this report.