Turkey trial of Saudi suspects in Khashoggi murder begins in absentia

Istanbul (AFP) –


Twenty Saudi suspects including two former aides to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman went on trial Friday in absentia in Turkey, accused of killing and dismembering journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Khashoggi, 59, was an insider-turned-critic who wrote for The Washington Post before he was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018 where he had gone to obtain documents necessary for his wedding to Turkish fiancee Hatice Cengiz.

Turkish prosecutors claim Saudi deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri and the royal court's media czar Saud al-Qahtani led the operation and gave orders to a Saudi hit team.

They were formally charged in March with "instigating the deliberate and monstrous killing, causing torment".

Eighteen other suspects -- including intelligence operative Maher Mutreb who frequently travelled with the crown prince on foreign tours, forensic expert Salah al-Tubaigy and Fahad al-Balawi, a member of the Saudi royal guard -- were charged with "deliberately and monstrously killing, causing torment".

The prosecutor has already issued arrest warrants for the suspects who are not in Turkey.

Cengiz, who is a complainant in the case, was attending the trial alongside the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard.

Yasin Aktay, a close friend of Khashoggi and advisor to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling party, was also in the courtroom.

Erdogan has said the order to murder Khashoggi came from "the highest levels" of the Saudi government but has never directly blamed Prince Mohammed.

- 'No rest until justice' -

Cengiz said she hoped the trial "brings to light the whereabouts of Jamal's body, the evidence against the killers and the evidence of those behind the gruesome murder."

"I will continue to pursue all legal avenues to hold Jamal's killers accountable and I will not rest until we get justice for Jamal," she told AFP before the trial.

During the Istanbul prosecutor's investigation, the suspects' phone records, their presence at the consulate confirmed by CCTV images, as well as Khashoggi's laptop, two phones and an iPad were analysed.

Khashoggi was killed and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in a case that tarnished the reputation of the crown prince despite his strenuous denial of any involvement.

Khashoggi's remains have never been found.

Saudi Arabia describes the murder as a "rogue" operation but both the CIA and Callamard have directly linked the crown prince, the de facto ruler and heir to the Saudi throne, to the killing.

Callamard called for an independent international probe into the murder last year after she said Khashoggi was the victim of a "premeditated extrajudicial execution".

A closed-door trial of 11 suspects in Saudi Arabia ended in December with five unnamed people sentenced to death.

The crown prince's former aides, Assiri and Qahtani, were exonerated.

The sons of Khashoggi said they forgave his killers in May this year, a moved expected to allow the government to grant clemency for the five convicts on death row.

Relations between Ankara and Riyadh are rocky, having worsened significantly after Khashoggi's murder.

The two countries are also on opposing sides in the Libyan war, where Ankara has recently helped turn the tide in favour of the UN-recognised government in Tripoli.