ISTANBUL (Reuters) – A Saudi consulate worker in Istanbul told a Turkish court on Friday he had been asked to light a tandoor oven less than an hour after Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi entered the building where he was killed.
Zeki Demir, a local technician who worked for the consulate, was giving evidence on the first day of the trial in absentia of 20 Saudi officials over Khashoggi’s killing, which sparked global outrage and tarnished the image of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.
Demir said he had been called to the consul’s residence after Khashoggi entered the nearby consulate to seek his papers.
“There were five to six people there… They asked me to light up the tandoor (oven). There was an air of panic,” he said.
Khashoggi disappeared after going to the consulate to get papers for his marriage in October 2018. Some Western governments, as well as the CIA, said they believed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the hit – an accusation Saudi officials denied.
Turkish officials have said one theory police pursued was that Khashoggi’s killers may have tried to dispose of his body by burning it after suffocating him and cutting up his corpse.
The indictment accuses two top Saudi officials, former deputy head of Saudi Arabia’s general intelligence Ahmed al-Asiri and former royal court adviser Saud al-Qahtani, of instigating “premeditated murder with monstrous intent”.
It says 18 other defendants were flown to Turkey to kill Khashoggi, a prominent and well-connected journalist who had grown increasingly critical of the crown prince.
The defendants are being tried in absentia and are unlikely ever to be handed over by Saudi Arabia, which has accused Turkey of failing to cooperate with a separate, largely secretive, trial in Riyadh last year.
In December a Saudi court sentenced five people to death and three to jail for the killing, but Khashoggi’s family later said they forgave his murderers, effectively granting them a formal reprieve under Saudi law.
A Saudi prosecutor said at the time there was no evidence connecting Qahtani to the killing and dismissed charges against Asiri.
BASIS FOR FURTHER TRIALS?
According to his testimony in the indictment, Demir reported seeing many skewers of meat and a small barbecue in addition to the oven in the consul’s garden. Marble slabs around the oven appeared to have changed colour as if they had been cleaned with a chemical, the indictment reported him as saying.
Separate witness testimony in the indictment, from the consul’s driver, said the consul had ordered raw kebabs to be bought from a local restaurant.
Demir offered to help with the garage door when a car with darkened windows arrived, but he was told to leave the garden quickly, the indictment said.
Rights campaigners hope that the Istanbul trial will throw a fresh spotlight on the case and reinforce the argument for sanctions against Riyadh or for legal action against the suspects when they travel abroad.
“If the process works, what this trial …will strengthen is the possibility of universal jurisdiction,” Agnes Callamard, U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, told Reuters on the eve of the trial.
That could give European countries, for example, the basis to launch a trial if any Saudis linked to the case travelled into their territories, she said.
“Justice in these complex environments is not delivered overnight…but a good process here can build up (evidence for) what can happen in five years, in 10 years, whenever the circumstances are stronger,” Callamard said.
Khashoggi’s fiancee Hatice Cengiz, who had waited unknowing outside the consulate while he was killed, said she would continue to seek justice “not only in Turkey but everywhere possible”.
(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans and Ece Toksabay, Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Peter Graff and Nick Tattersall)