The trial of 20 Saudi officials charged with the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi began in an Istanbul courtroom on Friday — although none of the accused were present to face justice.
The men — including two former close aides of the kingdom's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — are being tried in absentia, after Saudi Arabia refused repeated requests to extradite them.
Although there’s no prospect of the trial bringing those charged with the infamous murder to justice, Khashoggi’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz, named as the plaintiff in the case, hopes the proceedings will shed further light on the Washington Post columnist's killing.
"I hope this criminal case in Turkey brings to light the whereabouts of Jamal’s body [and] the evidence against the killers," Cengiz told Reuters. Cengiz waited outside while Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018 for paperwork needed for their wedding, where he was murdered.
A U.N. report last year found Khashoggi had been killed in a "deliberate, premeditated execution" by Saudi Arabia, and called for an investigation into the Crown Prince’s involvement, saying there was "credible evidence" he had played a role. The CIA believes bin Salman directly ordered the murder of the journalist, a one-time insider within the Saudi establishment who had become an increasingly strident critic of the powerful Crown Prince.
Bin Salman has denied ordering the brutal killing, which prompted international outrage and massively tarnished the young leader's reputation. His government has given shifting accounts of the murder, initially denied any involvement before labelling it a "rogue operation" and claiming Khashoggi was killed in a brawl when agents tried to forcibly return him to the kingdom.
Among the 20 Saudi nationals on trial in Istanbul are two former officials known to have had close ties to bin Salman. Saud al-Qahtani, a former adviser to bin Salman who is widely regarded as the mastermind of the killing, and Ahmed al-Assiri, a former deputy head of Saudi intelligence, are both charged with incitement to deliberate killing through torture, with prosecutors seeking life sentences for both.
A Saudi court cleared both men of any involvement when a group of suspects were put on trial over the killing last year, in secretive proceedings that were widely condemned as a sham intended to absolve the Crown Prince of responsibility.
While charges against Qahtani and Assiri were dismissed due to a lack of evidence, five others who took part in the murder were sentenced to death, with another three handed lengthy prison terms for covering up the killing. Saudi officials did not reveal the names of those found guilty, which found the killing was not premeditated.
Khashoggi’s family said they accepted the judgments, and later said they forgave his murderers, paving the way for the killers to be granted a legal reprieve under the kingdom's justice system.
But other parties including Cengiz, a United Nations special rapporteur, rights groups and Khashoggi’s former employer, the publisher of the Washington Post, Fred Ryan, denounced the Saudi judgments as a whitewash.
Ersin Kalaycıoğlu, professor of political sciences at Turkey’s Sabanci University, told VICE News that despite Turkish outrage over the killing, which had led to a major deterioration in the relationship with Saudi Arabia, the trial was attracting more interest internationally than domestically.
"The judges are considered to be under the complete control of the executive branch of government, so most people do not believe anything the courts decide,” he said.
“It’s going to be perceived domestically through a partisan divide, therefore the impact of this court case domestically would be less than you might think.”