Turkish court refuses to admit US report as trial evidence
A Turkish court trying 26 Saudi nationals in absentia for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi has refused to admit as evidence a recent US intelligence report implicating the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, despite a petition from the journalist’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz. The declassified US report released last Friday said Washington believed that Prince Mohammed approved the operation to “capture or kill” Khashoggi.
In the third session of the Istanbul trial on Thursday, Cengiz’s petition to add the report to the evidence case file was rejected on the grounds that it would “bring nothing” to the trial. The judge allowed her to file a new request with prosecutors leading the Turkish government’s case instead.
Khashoggi went into self-imposed exile in 2017, moving to the US and becoming a columnist for the Washington Post. While visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 to pick up paperwork for his marriage to Cengiz, a Turkish national, he was sedated, killed and dismembered by a 15-strong team of Saudi agents. His remains have never been found.
After a series of shifting explanations, Riyadh eventually admitted the 59-year-old had been killed in a “rogue operation”, but it has strenuously denied that the heir to the throne was involved.
Turkish prosecutors claim the Saudi deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri and the royal court’s media chief Saud al-Qahtani masterminded the mission.
The trial is largely a symbolic exercise, although Cengiz, Khashoggi’s friends and the UN special rapporteur who investigated his death see it as an “important formalised step” in their search for justice.
A previous trial held behind closed doors in Riyadh sentenced five unidentified people to death over Khashoggi’s killing, but the defendants’ sentences were commuted after the victim’s family formally forgave them.
On Thursday the court at the Çağlayan judiciary complex heard from Edip Yilmaz, a former driver employed at the consulate, who testified that the building’s security team locked him and other colleagues in a room on the basement floor on the day of the murder.
“Something suspicious was obviously going on,” the driver said, although he said he did not see Khashoggi or any of the Saudi nationals sent to intercept him.
In the first hearing, in July last year, another worker at the consulate testified that Saudi visitors had asked him how to operate a large tandoor oven on the premises, which is now the focus of Turkish investigators’ efforts to determine what happened to the journalist’s remains.
Ayman Noor, an Egyptian political dissident and close friend of the victim, told the court in November that he received a phone call from Khashoggi in which the journalist said he had been threatened by people close to the crown prince, and expressed fear for his and his family’s safety.
The next hearing is scheduled for 8 July.
Turkey’s pursuit of the Saudi defendants is widely viewed as hypocritical in a country that routinely locks up dissidents and has hollowed out its own judicial system, but the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has used Khashoggi’s killing to score political points over his regional rivals in Saudi Arabia.
Ankara’s decision not to officially comment on the declassified US report, however, and the court’s decision on Thursday to reject it, has been interpreted by many as the latest in a series of signals that Turkey may be seeking to mend frayed relations with Riyadh.
The Saudi official who is alleged to have twice issued threats against the independent UN investigator Agnès Callamard is the head of the kingdom’s human rights commission, and formerly served as an aide to the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Awwad al-Awwad is alleged by a person familiar with the matter to have twice threatened to “take care of” Callamard at a January 2020 meeting with senior human rights officials in Geneva.
The two private jets used by a Saudi Arabian assassination squad that killed and allegedly dismembered journalist Jamal Khashoggi were owned by a company that less than a year prior had been seized by the Kingdom's powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, according to recently filed court documents seen by CNN. The documents, filed as part of a Canadian civil lawsuit earlier this year, are labeled "Top Secret" and signed by a Saudi minister who relayed the orders of the crown prince, the young de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.