The Turkish prosecutor in the case against 26 Saudi nationals charged in the slaying of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi made a surprise request Thursday that their trial in absentia be suspended and the case transferred to Saudi Arabia, raising fears of a possible cover-up.
The panel of judges made no ruling on the prosecutor’s request but said a letter would be sent to Turkey’s Justice Ministry seeking its opinion on the possible transfer of the file to Saudi judicial authorities, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported. Trial was adjourned until April 7.
The development comes as Turkey has been trying to normalize its relationship with Saudi Arabia, which hit an all-time low following Khashoggi’s grisly October 2018 killing. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in an interview on Thursday that Saudi authorities were more cooperative on judicial issues with Turkey, but did not elaborate.
In arguing for the transfer, the prosecutor told the court that the Saudi chief public prosecutor’s office requested the Turkish proceedings be transferred to the kingdom in a letter dated March 13, and that international warrants issued by Ankara against the defendants be lifted, according to the private DHA news agency.
The prosecutor said that because the arrest warrants cannot be executed and defense statements cannot be taken, the case would remain inconclusive in Turkey.
Amnesty International urged Turkey to press ahead with the trial, saying if it is transferred to Saudi Arabia, Turkey will be “knowingly and willingly sending the case to a place where it will be covered up.”
Moving Khashoggi’s trial to Saudi Arabia would provide a diplomatic resolution to a dispute that represented the wider troubles between Ankara and the kingdom since the 2011 Arab Spring.
Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan supported Islamists as the uprisings took hold, while Saudi Arabia and its ally the United Arab Emirates sought to suppress such movements for fear of facing challenges to their autocratic governments. Meanwhile, Turkey sided with Qatar in a diplomatic dispute that saw Doha boycotted by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Since then-President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, the Gulf Arab states have set aside — but not fully resolved — the Qatar dispute. Meanwhile, Turkey under Erdogan has faced a rapid devaluation of its lira currency over his refusal to hike interest rates. Bilateral trade to the kingdom and the UAE, a major transshipment point for the world economy, also collapsed.
Since the start of 2022, Erdogan has sought to improve those ties, including making his first visit to the UAE in nearly a decade. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, after fighting through the coronavirus pandemic’s economic effects, facing a grinding war in Yemen and struggling with renewed tensions with Iran, also want to resolve the outstanding feud.
Khashoggi disappeared on Oct. 2, 2018, after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, seeking documents that would allow him to marry Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish national who was waiting outside the building. He never emerged.
Turkish officials allege that the Saudi national, who was a United States resident, was killed and then dismembered with a bone saw inside the consulate. His body has not been found. Prior to his killing, Khashoggi had written critically of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince in columns for the Washington Post.
Turkish authorities said he was killed by a team of Saudi agents. Those on trial in absentia include two former aides of the prince.
Saudi officials initially offered conflicting accounts concerning the killing, including claims that Khashoggi had left the consulate building unharmed. But amid mounting international pressure, they stated that Khashoggi’s death was a tragic accident, with the meeting unexpectedly turning violent.
Turkey decided to try the defendants in absentia after Saudi Arabia rejected Turkish demands for their extradition.
The slaying had sparked international condemnation and cast a cloud of suspicion over Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Western intelligence agencies, as well as the U.S. Congress, have said that an operation of this magnitude could not have happened without his knowledge.
In urging Turkey to proceed with the trial, Amnesty International said Ankara would be complicit in a cover-up if it grants the Saudi request for a transfer.
“If the prosecutor’s request is granted, then instead of prosecuting and shedding light on a murder that was committed on its territory … Turkey will be knowingly and willingly sending the case to a place where it will be covered up,” said Tarik Beyhan, Amnesty’s campaign director for Turkey.
Beyhan said he didn’t want to “think about the possibility” that the prosecutor’s request may be related to the improving ties between Riyadh and Ankara.
“Basic human rights … should not be made the subject of political negotiations,” he said. “A murder cannot be covered up to fix relations.”
Some of the men were put on trial in Riyadh behind closed doors. A Saudi court issued a final verdict in 2020 that sentenced five mid-level officials and operatives to 20-year jail terms. The court had originally ordered the death penalty, but reduced the punishment after Khashoggi’s son Salah, who lives in Saudi Arabia, announced that he forgave the defendants. Three others were sentenced to lesser jail terms.
On Thursday, Khashoggi’s fiancee, Cengiz, appeared to criticize the prosecutor’s request in a tweet in English. “It is an exemplary situation in terms of showing the dilemma facing humanity in the modern era,” she wrote. “Which of the two will we choose? To want to live like a virtuous human being or to build a life by holding material interests above all kinds of values.”
She did not respond to a request for comment.