ISTANBUL (Reuters) -A Turkish court on Thursday halted the trial of Saudi suspects over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and transferred it to Saudi Arabia, a ruling that drew condemnation from rights groups and comes as Ankara mends ties with Riyadh.
The decision was expected after the prosecutor called last week for the trial in absentia of 26 Saudi suspects to be transferred from Istanbul to Riyadh. The justice minister later endorsed the request, which was initially sought by Riyadh.
Khashoggi’s killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul four years ago raised a global outcry and put pressure on Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Turkish officials said they believe Khashoggi, a prominent critic of the crown prince, was killed and his body dismembered in an operation which President Tayyip Erdogan said had been ordered at the “highest levels” of the Saudi government.
Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancee who was waiting outside the consulate on Oct. 2, 2018 when he entered to retrieve documents for their upcoming marriage, said she was surprised and saddened by the “political” decision.
“The case was slowly coming to a halt in previous hearings… and I had begun to grow hopeless but I did not expect such a decision,” she told Reuters.
“Saudi Arabia is a country where we know there is no justice. No one expects a just decision there.”
In 2020, Saudi Arabia jailed eight people for between seven and 20 years for Khashoggi’s murder. None of the defendants was named, in what rights groups described as a sham trial.
The Turkish court’s ruling marks a sharp turnaround in the trial that began in 2020, especially given public statements from officials that Turkey needs to handle the case to serve justice.
Erdogan said in December 2018 that Turkey would not hand over evidence to Riyadh because they could destroy it, while criticising their changing accounts of how Khashoggi was murdered.
“They think the world is dumb. This nation isn’t dumb and it knows how to hold people accountable,” Erdogan said at the time.
A U.S. intelligence report released a year ago said Prince Mohammed had approved the operation to kill or capture Khashoggi, but the Saudi government denied any involvement by the crown prince and rejected the report’s findings.
Proceedings in the case, which received widespread support from officials when it was launched, had slowed in later hearings.
The court had refused to add a U.S. intelligence report to the file, while also requesting information from Riyadh to avoid duplicating punishment.
Gokmen Baspinar, a lawyer for Cengiz, said on Thursday the decision to transfer the case to Saudi Arabia was against the law, adding that it meant handing over Turkey’s sovereignty.
“The fact that the trial is being transferred to a country where there is no justice is an example of irresponsibility against the Turkish people,” Baspinar told the court.
The Saudi government media office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The killing and subsequent accusations strained ties between the two Sunni Muslim regional powers and led to an unofficial Saudi boycott of Turkish goods, which cut Ankara’s exports to Riyadh by 90%.
But with Turkey keen for investment to boost its economy, Ankara has sought over the last year to heal the rift with Riyadh.
Erdogan said last month Turkey was continuing a “positive dialogue” with Saudi Arabia and wants to take concrete steps to improve ties. The respective foreign ministers held talks two weeks ago and agreed to improve ties, Ankara said.
Cengiz told Reuters that Turkey should not give up on its principles to repair ties with another country, and should have held a stronger stance.
“That such a thing has happened has opened up the judicial process in Turkey to controversy. It is saddening in this regard,” she said outside Istanbul’s main courthouse.
For nearly four years, Cengiz has led the campaign to bring those involved in the murder, including Prince Mohammed, to justice and said she had become an activist for Khashoggi due to a “disgrace of the system”.
She said on Thursday she will continue to seek justice.
“If you are pursuing something you believe in, you have to take the chance that you will be left alone,” she said.
“At first, Turkey was also involved in this matter with all its institutions, the president and others. That is not the case anymore but I stand my ground.”
(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Writing by Ece Toksabay; Editing by Jonathan Spicer, Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Kim Coghill)