(Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International)
“They dared to commit murder on Turkish soil. They thought that if this were to be discovered, they could buy a way out.
These are the words of Yasin Aktay, one of President Erdogan’s top advisers and vice chairman of the ruling AKP party, in his 2020 speech marking the second anniversary of the assassination of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Aktay lashed out at the Saudi justice system, saying it cannot be trusted to deliver justice to Jamal, and praised the Turkish courts for pursuing the case. President Erdogan is to be commended, he said, for not allowing Khashoggi’s murder to be “political currency” and for focusing “only on seeking justice”.
Last week, following the lower court’s decision to ask him for his opinion on whether to stop the trial, Bekir Bozdag, Turkey’s Minister of Justice, replied that the Turkish government would recommend that the trial be suspended. in absentia against the 26 Saudi citizens charged with the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the referral of the case to Saudi Arabia. A Turkish court is expected to approve the decision tomorrow.
As the minister’s own government has acknowledged, transferring the Jamal Khashoggi murder case to Saudi Arabia is a conscious and intentional move to have the case covered up by Saudi authorities. After all, the Saudi system has repeatedly refused to cooperate with the Turkish prosecution. It is clear that a Saudi court cannot and will not deliver justice in this case.
So what could be behind this drastic change?
As the former UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, I investigated this case from the beginning. From the moment Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, the realpolitik and political interests camouflaged, distorted and defined his treatment, his brutal murder, the whereabouts of his remains and the subsequent search for justice, truth and reconciliation.
In 2019, during the show trial in Saudi Arabia, the defendants did not deny killing Jamal Khashoggi, and the hitmen, whose identity was not revealed at trial, were found guilty. In 2020, a Saudi court then overturned the death sentences, commuted them to 20 years and sentenced three others to terms of between seven and 10 years.
Despite this, individuals who abused the responsibilities of their positions of power or disrespected them were not even identified. It was a state-sponsored extrajudicial execution, but the highest state officials responsible for ordering it and ensuring its cover-up were not held accountable.
Saudi authorities say it was an “unauthorized operation”. However, under international law, such an operation has a strict definition, and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi does not fit that definition. On the contrary, every aspect of this crime engages the responsibility of the Saudi state. Members of the assassination team were Saudi state officials. The team was sent on an official mission to Turkey. Those who carried out the murder had the resources of the Saudi state: they entered Turkey on a plane with diplomatic clearance; two team members had diplomatic passports. They committed the murder inside the Saudi consulate. A follow-up team of 17 Saudi state officials was sent to Turkey to clean up the crime scene.
This was not an unauthorized action committed by a few uncontrolled individuals. All elements of the operation demonstrate the responsibility of the Saudi state.
Early in the search for justice, it became clear – also to the Turkish authorities – that there was little hope of justice being served in a Saudi court. A trial was therefore launched in abstention (trial held in the absence of the accused) in Turkey. Judgments in absentia are always subject to the condition that a new trial be granted in a new court following the arrest of a convicted defendant in absentia.
But two years later, the Turkish prosecutor’s request to stop the trial and the speed with which the government decided to transfer the case to Saudi Arabia – and the speed with which the Ministry of Justice responded to the Court’s request – suggest that high-level political momentum is at play.
If the case is transferred to Saudi Arabia, it will be a sad day for Jamal’s relatives. It will be a sad day for those who have been campaigning for justice for his murder for more than three years. It would be an embarrassing day for Turkey, as it is a reversal of the Erdogan government’s public commitment to ensuring justice for the horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Anyone who has been waiting for the full truth to come out before a duly constituted, impartial and independent tribunal will rightly wonder what has changed since Yasin Aktay’s lofty pledges in just over two years, that only the pursuit of justice motivate the actions of his government.
In its decision to transfer the Jamal Khashoggi murder case to Saudi Arabia, Turkey decides to refer it to those responsible. It is a sure and certain guarantee that only injustice and impunity will prevail.
In fact, in the words of a Turkish proverb, Kurdish kuzu emanet edilmez: never trust the wolf to watch over the lamb.