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Turkey: Don’t Transfer Khashoggi Trial to Saudi Arabia

Would Squander Chances of Justice for Brutal, State-Sponsored Murder

Candles lit by activists protesting the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi are placed outside Saudi Arabia's Consulate in Istanbul.  © 2018 Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Photo

(Istanbul) – The Turkish government should reverse a plan approved by the justice minister and due to be rubber-stamped by a court decision to transfer the case regarding the Saudi state-sponsored murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch said today.

On April 7, 2022, an Istanbul court is due to issue its formal ruling granting the prosecutor’s request on March 31 to transfer the case. Saudi authorities have obstructed meaningful accountability for Khashoggi’s murder since October 2, 2018, the day he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and disappeared.

“Transferring the Khashoggi trial from Turkey to Saudi Arabia would end any possibility of justice for him, and would reinforce Saudi authorities’ apparent belief that they can get away with murder,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Turkish authorities should reverse their decision and not contribute any further to entrenching Saudi impunity by handing over the Khashoggi case to the very people implicated in his murder.”

A Saudi court sentenced eight lower-level operatives found responsible for the murder to prison terms of 7 to 20 years in a trial that lacked transparency. A December 31, 2021 Guardian investigation concluded that at least three of those convicted in the case were living and working “in seven-star accommodation” inside a government-run security compound in Riyadh.

The Saudi authorities failed to arrest the most senior officials accused of involvement in the plot to target Khashoggi, including the former royal court adviser, Saud al-Qahtani, and the deputy intelligence chief, Ahmed al-Assiri, merely announcing their resignations.

Agnes Callamard, the former special rapporteur for extrajudicial executions and now Amnesty International secretary general, noted on June 19, 2019, when she released the findings of her investigation into the killing, that the mission to execute Khashoggi required “significant government coordination, resources and finances.” Callamard determined that there was credible evidence warranting further investigation of high-level Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, for their role in the murder.

The Saudi government refused to cooperate with Callamard’s investigation. She reported that a UN colleague alerted her in January 2020 that a senior Saudi official had twice threatened in a meeting with other senior UN officials in Geneva that month to have her “taken care of” if the UN didn’t rein her in. By indicating that it is willing to transfer the Khashoggi case to Saudi Arabia for trial, the Turkish government is reversing earlier statements calling for an international investigation into his murder. In November 2018, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the murder was “premeditated” and that the order to kill Khashoggi came from the “highest levels” of the Saudi government. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also told parliament at the time, “We will do whatever it takes to bring the murder to light.” 

While the Saudi government has admitted responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder, it has not provided justice for its role in the crime. Saudi authorities do not appear to have investigated the possible role of top Saudi leaders in the murder, and they have never disclosed the location and condition of Khashoggi’s remains. Under international law, a state is responsible for the unlawful acts of its agents acting in their official capacity: in this case, the deliberate, premeditated, and extrajudicial execution of a government critic. For international crimes such as torture, commanders up to the highest level can be held liable for crimes committed by their subordinates under the principle of command responsibility.

Given the complete lack of judicial independence in Saudi Arabia, the role of the Saudi government in Khashoggi’s killing, its past attempts at obstructing justice, and a criminal justice system that fails to satisfy basic standards of fairness, chances of a fair trial for the Khashoggi case in Saudi Arabia are close to nil, Human Rights Watch said.

A 2018 US intelligence report concluded that Mohammed bin Salman approved the murder. Human Rights Watch has called for the US to impose sanctions available under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act on officials at the highest levels of Saudi leadership, including the crown prince.

Turkey’s allies and United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres should encourage Ankara not to transfer the case to Saudi Arabia.

“Turkey’s regional Realpolitik in resolving tensions with other countries shouldn’t include sacrificing justice for Jamal Khashoggi,” Page said. “The decision to transfer the case will be a shameful indictment of the Turkish authorities’ willingness to whitewash assassinations by foreign governments on their territory.” 

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