On the 7th of April, the Turkish Court committed in the trial in absentia of 26 defendants in relation to the disappearing of Jamal Khashoggi has deliberated to suspend the case and transfer it to Saudi Arabia. This action perfectly fits the context of the complex rapprochement between Ankara and Riyadh. However, it puts at extreme risk the possibility of a verdict bringing justice to the death of Khashoggi. He was probably the most renowned journalist of the Arab world. Once become so critical towards the Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, for his personal safety was forced to move first to the United States and then to Turkey, still keeping working for the Washington Post. In 2018 he disappeared after having reached the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, catching the attention and the outrage of the International community on Riyadh’s government, suspected to have ordered a badly covered assassination.
A misterious disappearance
On the 2nd of October 2018, Jamal Khashoggi goes to the Saudi consular office in Istanbul together with his girlfriend Hatice Cengiz, to take a document required to marry her. Before entering the consulate, he reassures her that nothing wrong could happen to him, but also ask her to call a consultant of President Erdogan in case he is not coming back. She waits him for around ten hours before going back to the consulate the following morning. No one has seen the journalist, whose body is still nowadays missing, walking away from the Consulate.
At first Saudi Arabia decided to deny everything, affirming that Khashoggi left the building after a few moments. However, this version resulted to be quite weak and from the 20th
of October corrects it describing it as a undercover operation unknown to the Crown Prince which unfortunately ended with the death of Khashoggi.
Investigations and trials
The aforementioned is the narration supported by the Saudi public prosecutor during the closed trial against eleven unknown people in Riyadh. The verdict, pronounced in December 2019, committed to death five people as material killers and other three for having covered the murder. Following the forgiveness expressed by Khashoggi’s son, the execution wass commuted into years of captivity, but in September 2020 the names of the eight accused were not yet known and there is no evidence that the sentence has been effectively implemented. Human Rights Watch has condemned the insufficiency of the trial if compared to international standards, while Dr. Cengiz has defined it as the “absolute parody of Justice.”
On the other hand, Turkey expressed a completely different reaction. In fact, already at the end of October 2018 the general prosecutor had declared that Khashoggi had been strangled immediately after having entered the building, then dismembered and finally made to disappear.
President Erdogan exposed personally his views on the columns of the Washington Post, affirming that undoubtedly the murder was not just intentional, but even ordered by the highest figures of the Saudi government. After this, in July 2020, consequently to Riyadh’s refuse to extradite the suspects, Istanbul became the stage for a trial in absentia towards 26 men, including Saad al-Qahtani and Ahmed Asiri, all close to the Crown Prince Mohammad.
The most reliable and impartial investigation is the one conducted by Agnes Callamard, special UN speaker, described in a report published in July 2019. Having had access to the audio recording regarding what happened in the consulate given to her by the Turkish intelligence, Callamard concluded that what happened to Khashoggi was a “extrajudicial murder of which Saudi Arabia is legally responsible”. She defined it as a violation of the right of life of the journalist, guaranteed by the Art 6 of the International Pact on Civil and Political Rights, as well as an infringement of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations , of the prohibition to use of violence outside of the own territories in times of peace and finally, a violation of the freedom of expression. Moreover, she also raised the issue that both the investigations pursued by Turkey and Saudi Arabia were cont conforming to the international standards, despite the apparent determination showed by the Turkish authorities.
In fact, this determination has been drastically downsized in the last period. Last month, the Turkish prosecutor has proposed to accept the Saudi request to transfer the trial from Istanbul to Saudi Arabia and Ankara’s Ministry of Justice has agreed on this regard. Hence, the transfer happened on the 7th of April, despite the firm protests of groups defending the human rights, of Cengiz’s lawyers. This transfer does not mean per se the withdraw from the jurisdiction on this case by the Turkish authorities, who are waiting for the first Saudi verdicts before the formal withdraw. However, this move will presumably mean the end of the trial. In fact, Saudi authorities have more than once said meant that they consider this closed trial as the final act of the entire process.
Justice and Realpolitik
Whether it might seem illogical “giving the lamb to wolves”, as advocate Ali Ceylan expresses the concept, we have first to consider that the one of Jamal Khashoggi has never been a mere judiciary case. The disappearing of the most important Arab journalist was risen to the international headlines as an exemplary violation of the freedom of expression, happened in Turkey: a country full of contradictions and that casts sinister shadows over one of the most important allied of the US: Saudi Arabia. Hence, this affair has acquired a clear political value. Political and strategic has also been the management of the case by Turkey.
In 2018, Turkey was considering Saudi Arabia as a direct rival for the leadership on the Middle East in general and on the Sunni world more in particular. The disappearing of Khashoggi was representing the unique occasion for Erdogan to discredit the Saudi government and incense Turkey, despite the ambiguous relation of the Turkish government with the human rights. For this reason no wonder why Turkey shared important details to put pressure on the Saudis and to keep this affair on the front-pages of journals and broadcasts. Erdogan himself declared that had personally shared with representatives of the UK, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia and United States the audio files containing the moment of the journalist’s death.
After a while, the Turkish judiciary activity had economic repercussion on the country. Saudi Arabia and its allies started a non-declared boycott against Turkish exporters. The recent financial crisis and the consequent devaluation of the Turkish Lira have pushed Erdogan to search for a rapprochement with the Al-Sauds.
That’s why the last years the Turkish Ministry for Foreign Affairs has visited Saudi Arabia for the first time after the affair Khashoggi and why the last month the two countries have been taking the first steps leading to the transfer of the trial to Riyadh. The automatic approval of decisions undertaken by the Turkish government by the Criminal Court of Justice of Istanbul – evidence of the submission of the Turkish Justice system to Ankara’s Realpolitik – has been firmly condemned by Human Rights Watch. For Michael Page, vice-director of the Middle East department of Human Right Watch, this move will preclude any real possibility of justice for Khashoggi’s case.