Last week, Turkey's Attorney General issued indictments against 20 Saudi Arabian citizens accused of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. The indictments call for a life sentence in a maximum security prison for the former deputy head of Saudi Arabia's general intelligence agency, Ahmed Al-Asiri, and former royal court adviser Saud Al-Qahtani. The rest of the execution squad included Royal Guard officer Maher Mutrab.
The indictment is significant in content and form, both politically and legally. Despite the fact that the Turkish government did not interfere in the course of the investigation, in line with the separation of powers in democracies, it did not give in to temptation and agree to settle the issue diplomatically. Nor did it accept the Saudi government's show trial or seek to hinder or stop the investigation. Instead, it provided all necessary support to the prosecutors to carry out their professional duties.
Politically, the indictment translates into what President Recep Tayyip Erdogan believes is a duty to the Khashoggi family to track down the perpetrators and hold them accountable. Erdogan also said that justice is only achieved through national and international courts. It is clear that the first step is now on course, awaiting the second, which is to hold an international trial and for Riyadh to cooperate with the investigation by allowing the extradition of the suspects so that they can be questioned freely and transparently in a formally-constituted court of law.
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The text of the indictments includes affirmation that a lot of professional, accurate and patient work has already gone into this process. Over the past year and a half, the testimonies of 55 witnesses have been heard, including Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi's fiancée. Evidence has been taken from the crime scene in the Saudi Consulate building, as well as the home of the Consul, Mohammed Al-Otaibi, and other related sites. The integrity of the investigations cannot be called into question. Moreover, we are assured that the trial will meet international standards, in the presence of human rights observers.
The most important aspect of the indictments is the charge against Al-Asiri and Al-Qahtani that they are guilty of "instigating a premeditated murder with the intent of [causing] torment through fiendish instinct", based on recorded phone calls between them and the execution squad. The missing link is the question of who issued the orders; it would have been impossible for a group of government officials to fly on a private jet from Riyadh to Istanbul chartered by the Saudi government, without the knowledge and involvement of very high-ranking officials.
The evidence appears to be insufficient to accuse Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, but no doubt Al-Asiri and Al-Qahtani, if it gets to that stage, will be questioned about who gave the orders and instructions to go ahead with the murder. This has not prevented international condemnation of Bin Salman, not only due to the involvement of officials and employees in the Royal Court who report to him directly, but also his complete authority over everything in Saudi Arabia. The very nature of tyranny prevents any employee from acting without orders from above.
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The indictment move is an important step, as it means that a trial is inevitable and subject to routine protective measures with arrest warrants issued through Interpol. This is a demonstration of Turkey's wish to carry out its moral and legal obligations regarding a crime committed within its jurisdiction and against the Vienna Convention governing diplomats and diplomatic buildings.
The comments made by UN Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnès Callamard, who conducted an informal investigation for the UN Human Rights Council, are significant, because she concluded that there is a need for an official investigation and an international trial of the accused either in Turkey or abroad. She also criticised the way in which Saudi Arabia dealt with the issue and praised the Turkish government.
Having read the indictments, Callamard summed up eloquently, emphasising the political backdrop of the crime based on who gave the order; the need not to be content with prosecuting those who assassinated a journalist for his opinions, without any personal relationship or problems with him; and that an international trial is an appropriate response to the sham Saudi trial, which aimed to close the case to protect Bin Salman, not serve justice. She also pointed out the consistency of the indictments with Turkey's obligations under international law.
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Above all else, the indictments represent an important step in keeping the case alive, and preventing it from being closed by default. Although the accused will be tried in absentia, the sword will always hang over their necks if found guilty, pending justice being served.
It should be noted that Turkey does not consider the issue to be a bilateral problem with Saudi Arabia. Its approach is simply to say that a gruesome crime was committed on Turkish soil, the details of which are now almost clear, and that the Turkish government's first choice was to cooperate with its Saudi counterparts to prosecute and punish the perpetrators. However, this did not happen. Hence, it has carried out its duties as a democratically-elected government responsible for the safety and security of its citizens and visitors. As an international crime an international trial is essential for justice to be seen to be done for the victim and his family. It will also deter anyone considering such a crime against opposition figures, either in Turkey or anywhere else.
This article was translated from Al-Araby Al-Jadid, 30 March 2020
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.