Turkish prosecutors began a criminal trial against 20 Saudi citizens in absentia last week for the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi. While the proceedings in Istanbul could reveal new grotesque details about the killing, the Turkish government undoubtedly hopes to tarnish the image of its regional rival to the south.
The trial started with seven Turkish witnesses taking the stand, some of whom described suspicious behavior from the Saudi officials. On the day of the disappearance, Saudis working at the embassy told several Turkish employees not to come to work and in certain cases denied their access to the residence. Zeki Demir, a technician working at the consulate that day said he felt “an air of panic” when summoned to the residence. Turkish lawyers representing the defendants said their clients denied all the claims set forth by the witnesses. Khashoggi’s wife, who also testified, said outside the courtroom that her “search for justice will continue.”
Earlier last year, a court in Saudi Arabia secretly sentenced five men to the death penalty and three more to 24 years in prison for Khashoggi’s murder. The names of the sentenced defendants never revealed. The proceedings cleared Saud Al-Qahatani, a royal adviser and Ahmed Al-Assiri, a former deputy head of intelligence of wrongdoing. Khashoggi’s fiancé tweeted that the findings were “not acceptable.”
The Turkish proceedings could re-implicate some senior officials in the assassination, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan (MbS). Agnès Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings said that the murder was planned and endorsed by high-level Saudi officials while the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency concluded that the Crown Prince ordered the killing. Callamard later added that this trial sends “a very strong message to dictators around the world that they cannot get away with killing a journalist.”
While the Turkish government claims to seek truth and justice in Khashoggi’s murder, Erdogan is also motivated to discredit his regional neighbor. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Turkey is difficult as they support different Islamic political systems in the Middle East. Notably, Erdogn is ideologically allied with Khashoggi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which is hated by Saudi Arabia because it has threated the stability of the royal family.
Khashoggi, a Saudi, fled the kingdom to Turkey in September 2017, where he wrote for the Washington Post and worked as editor-in-chief for Al-Arab News, criticizing Saudi Arabia, the Crown Prince and his father, King Salman of Saudi Arabia.