FOR THE RECORD*
Nearly two years after Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Kingdom’s Istanbul consulate, a Turkish court has begun the trial of 20 Saudi officials for the shocking crime. The opening session on July 3 featured gruesome testimony from a Turkish man who was present at the Saudi consul general’s residence on the day of the killing.
On October 2, 2018, Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist living in exile in Virginia due to his criticism of some of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s policies, disappeared after entering the consulate to complete paperwork for his upcoming marriage to his Turkish fiancée. After first strenuously denying any knowledge of the disappearance, the Saudi government eventually acknowledged that its own officials had carried out Khashoggi’s murder. From the outset, Erdoğan seized on the case to weaken bin Salman, whom he sees as a regional rival. Leaks from Turkish government sources kept the story in the world headlines for months and ratcheted up pressure on the Kingdom as Erdoğan promised justice for Khashoggi.
In November 2018 the United States sanctioned 17 Saudi officials, including Saud al-Qahtani, a former top bin Salman aide who was “part of the planning and execution of the operation.” The Trump administration, however, has refrained from blaming bin Salman, the Kingdom’s day-to-day ruler and continues to sell arms to Riyadh over strong congressional opposition. France, Germany, Canada, and—as of this week—the United Kingdom also have imposed sanctions on Saudi officials.
Citing audio recordings acquired by Turkish intelligence, forensic and police reports, official statements, CCTV recordings, and expert and witness interviews, a UN investigation concluded last June that at least 19 Saudi officials had been involved in holding Khashoggi captive in the consulate, strangling him to death, dismembering his body, and “forensically cleaning” the crime scene in a premeditated execution. The UN found “credible evidence warranting further investigation of high-level Saudi officials’ individual liability, including that of the Crown Prince.” Bin Salman continues to deny that he ordered the killing, calling it a “rogue operation.”
The Turkish Trial
Turkey launched its criminal investigation just weeks after the murder. The 117-page indictment accuses 20 Saudi officials, most of whom the United States and other countries have sanctioned, of conspiring to kill Khashoggi. It names the former deputy head of general intelligence Ahmed al-Asiri (who has not been sanctioned by the United States) and al-Qahtani as main defendants. Bin Salman is not named. All 20 defendants are being tried in absentia, as Saudi Arabia has refused Turkey’s extradition request.
Al-Asiri and al-Qahtani, the indictment argues, commissioned Saudi intelligence officer Mansour Othman Abahussain to form a 15-man group to retrieve Khashoggi from the Istanbul consulate—and to kill him should he resist. (The UN investigation had pointed to Maher Mutreb as the leading figure in the hit squad.) The group, the Turkish indictment says, consisted of three units—intelligence, logistics, and negotiations—and included Salah Tubaigy, a forensic scientist. It details Abahussain’s and others’ entries into an Istanbul hotel and the consulate and their 10 PM flight out of Istanbul on a private jet.
At the opening session on July 3, the court heard the testimony of Zeki Demir, a technician who worked for the Saudi consulate and who had been called to the consul general’s residence less than an hour after Khashoggi entered the compound. Describing an “air of panic” at the residence, Demir testified that Saudi officials asked him to “light up the tandoor (oven).” Gruesomely, he claimed that he saw meat skewers and marble slabs in the consul general’s garden that had “changed color as if they had been cleaned with a chemical.” When, Demir said, upon seeing a car arrive with darkened windows, he offered to help with the garage door, he was spurned and was asked to leave the garden. He noted that when he returned to the residence several days later, he found the marble under the oven destroyed. The indictment claims that 32 kilograms of raw meat was delivered to the residence by a nearby restaurant after the killing, suggesting that the cremation and cover-up was planned in advance.
Following Demir’s testimony, the trial was adjourned until the next session, scheduled for November 24.
Justice for Khashoggi?
UN Special Rapporteur Agnès Callamard, who slammed the Saudi government’s entirely secretive trial last year as “the antithesis of justice,” called the Turkish trial the “closest chance for justice available in the Khashoggi killing.” That is ironic, given that Erdoğan’s assaults on the rule of law have rendered Turkey’s judiciary untrustworthy in the eyes of its citizens and outside observers alike. Still, Turkey’s Khashoggi trial will, at a minimum, keep the plight of the slain journalist in the headlines.
1. Defendants: Ahmed bin Muhammad al-Asiri; Suud Al-Qahtani; Mansur Osman Abu Huseyin; Maher Abdulaziz M. Mutreb; Mustafa Muhammed M. Al-Madani; Badr Lafi M. Alotaibi; Turki Musharraf M. Alshehri; Muhammed Saad H. Alzahrani; Salah Muhammed A. Tubaigy; Fahad Shabib A. Albalawi; Thaar Ghaleb T. Alharbi; Naif Hassan S. Alarifi; Saif Saad Q. el-Kahtani; Abdulaziz Muhammed M. Alhawsawi; Waleed Abdullah M. Alshehri; Halid Aedh G. Alotaibi; Meshal Saad M. Albostani; Mufflih Shaya M. Almuslih; Ahmed Abdullah A. Almuzaini; Saad Muid Alwarni.
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Photo: April Brady / POMED