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Why Turkey Has Handed Over the Jamal Khashoggi Case to Saudi Arabia

The decision to hand over the Khashoggi case to Saudi Arabia was a matter of political expediency rather than accountability for a brutal murder.

The murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi on October 2, 2018, has been a nagging headache for Saudi Arabia ever since the Western world accused Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) of ordering the killing. The U. S. intelligence community underlined in a 2021 declassified report that MBS “approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has zealously accused Saudi Arabia on the murder of Khashoggi. In a speech at the Second Conference of the Inter-Parliamentary Jerusalem Platform on December 4, 2018, Erdogan explained why he would not turn over any documents related to Khashoggi’s murder to the Saudis, saying, “Jamal Khashoggi was martyred in a vile operation. Of course they called us from Saudi Arabia. We told everything to both father and son. Their special representatives have arrived. We accepted and listened to all the documents we had. Then I asked the King, ‘What were these 15 people doing in Istanbul? This killer is one of those 15 people. You can find it if you want.’” About a year later, Erdogan said in a Washington Post article published September 30, 2019: “Where is Khashoggi’s body? Who signed the Saudi journalist’s death warrant? Who sent 15 murderers, including a forensic officer, to Istanbul on two planes?” Erdogan also said that “except for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001,” Khashoggi’s murder likely ranks among the most impressive and controversial events of the 21st century and one that poses a serious threat to international order, noting that “it is a serious concern that the world public opinion knows so little about what happened one year later.”

Erdogan subsequently authorized the Ministry of Justice to move forward with a trial of the Saudi suspects in the Khashoggi murder case. The trial was progressing until last month when one of the prosecutors involved in the case requested that the trial be stopped and the entire investigation handed over to the Saudis. The world was stunned by the justice ministry’s approval of the request and wanted answers to the question: Why does the Turkish government want to hand over its investigation, albeit a symbolic one, to Saudi Arabia, despite previous accusations that the Saudi government was involved in Khashoggi’s murder?

Khashoggi, a U.S.-based journalist and frequent critic of the Saudi Arabian government, was murdered amid suspicious circumstances at the Saudi Consulate building in Istanbul. Saudi officials claimed that Khashoggi was killed in a rogue operation by a team of government agents who were tasked with convincing Khashoggi to return to Saudi Arabia, while Turkish officials alleged that the agents were directed by the highest levels of the Saudi government.

In addition to being a prominent Saudi journalist, Khashoggi had been close to the Saudi royal family for decades and served as an adviser to the government. The relationship eventually soured and, in 2017, Khashoggi opted for self-imposed exile in the United States. There he began to criticize the policies of MBS in a monthly column in the Washington Post. His first column, in September 2017, underscored the risk he faced of being arrested by MBS.

Aware of the risk he was taking, Khashoggi went to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on September 28, 2018, to obtain an official document showing that he was divorced. He needed this document because it would enable him to marry his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. Khashoggi was invited back to the consulate on October 2, 2018. Cengiz accompanied Khashoggi to the entrance of the consulate on that day and, according to data from closed-circuit television cameras, Khashoggi entered the building at 1:14 p.m. local time. Before entering the building, however, Khashoggi had given Cengiz two mobile phones and told her to call Erdogan’s adviser if he did not come back out of the building. That precaution was indicative of Khashoggi’s fear that he might be attacked inside the building.

Contradictions by the Saudi Government

In one of his early statements regarding the whereabouts of Khashoggi, MBS said that Khashoggi left the consulate building shortly after he entered it. The Saudi government, however, contradicted MBS, saying that on October 20, 2018, Khashoggi died during a fight when he resisted attempts by government agents to return him to Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi, the government said, was killed after being placed in a chokehold.

Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor added to the contradictory statements when he concluded on November 15, 2018, that Khashoggi was forcibly restrained in a struggle and injected with a drug (the name of which the prosecutor did not specify) that ultimately killed him. The body then was dismembered and handed over to a local collaborator outside the consulate for disposal. The prosecutor also cited the statements of five witnesses to the struggle who said that MBS knew nothing about the confrontation.  The prosecutor then accused 31 individuals of being responsible for Khashoggi’s death, arresting 21 of them and seeking the death penalty for five of them.

Turkey’s Response to the Murder of Khashoggi

The Turkish government was appalled that Saudi officials had dared to implement a plan to kill one of the regime’s critics in a NATO country. Rather than use official channels to request an international investigation in collaboration with Turkish officials, the Saudis chose to act independently and conduct their own investigation. The Saudis also questioned the proactive and preventive capacity of Turkish intelligence agents and the Turkish National Police, suggesting that the intelligence agents and the police should have been able to uncover a Saudi plot to murder Khashoggi and thus prevent his brutal death. It is true, of course, that Turkish law enforcement lost its capacity to function effectively after the government purged almost all of its anti-terrorism and intelligence police officers in response to the suspicious failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016.

At the start of the Turkish investigation of Khashoggi’s death, Erdogan spoke zealously about the heinous nature of the crime and his belief that Saudi King Salman was at least indirectly responsible. In a November 2, 2018, Washington Post article, for example, Erdogan said that Khashoggi “was killed in cold blood by a death squad” and that “his murder was premeditated.” Erdogan added that he was sure the order to kill Khashoggi “came from the highest levels of the Saudi government” but did “not believe for a second that King Salman, the custodian of the holy mosques, ordered the hit.”

The only evidence of the murder was found on audio recordings of the alleged perpetrators as they carried out the ghastly crime. In November 2018, the Turkish government claimed that it had shared these recordings with Saudi Arabia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France. On one of the recordings, Saudi forensic specialist Dr. Salah Mohammed Al Tubaigy can be heard saying, “The body is heavy, I cut it on the ground for the first time. If we take plastic bags and tear them apart, the job will be done.” Turkish officials were not allowed to enter the consulate building where the murder allegedly took place until two weeks after Saudi officials had forensically cleaned all the remains of Khashoggi’s body.

Istanbul’s chief prosecutor, in what is believed to be his first official statement about Khashoggi’s dead, said that Khashoggi drowned immediately after he entered the consulate and that his body was dismembered and destroyed. The prosecutor charged Saad al-Qahtani, Ahmad Asiri, and 18 other Saudi nationals with murder. Saudi Arabia rejected Turkey’s extradition request, prompting Turkey to put 20 suspects on trial in absentia in Istanbul in July 2020. In the second indictment accepted by the court in November 2020, a vice-consul and an attaché were accused of premeditated murder.

Turkish Prosecutor’s Request to Hand Over the Khashoggi Case

The Turkish prosecutor, during a court hearing for 26 defendants in the Khashoggi murder case, demanded that the proceedings be stopped and the case handed over to the Saudi Arabian judicial officials. The prosecutor justified his decision to transfer the case by saying “the defendants are foreign nationals, their arrest warrants and red notice decisions could not be executed on the grounds that their statements could not be taken” and therefore the trial proceedings would be transferred to the Saudi Arabian judicial authorities who will be responsible for taking any necessary procedural actions in the case. The trial judge, however, ordered the prosecutor to seek an opinion from Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdag before the case is transferred. Bozdag ruled in favor of the prosecutor, saying that “the transfer of the trial to Saudi Arabia does not abolish the jurisdiction of the Turkish courts.”

Independent Request or Government Directive?

The judiciary is under the absolute control of the executive branch in authoritarian states. In rare cases, courageous investigators will adhere to the rule of law and ignore pressure from government leaders to do otherwise. Turkey joined the league of authoritarian states in the early 2010s. The corruption scandals and the ensuing investigations that implicated Erdogan, his family, and his cabinet in late 2013 angered Erdogan and threatened the future viability of his regime. Solid evidence proved that Erdogan and his entourage siphoned millions of dollars for their own benefit. Erdogan’s priority since then has been to maintain his grip on power by ignoring the rule of law and replacing the country’s secular democratic system of government with an iron-fisted autocracy. The July 15, 2016, coup attempt provided further pretext for Erdogan to sweep all government power into his hands. By all objective assessments of the incident, Erdogan and his government allies knew about the coup attempt in advance but allowed it to happen in a controlled way. To secure his hold on power, Erdogan took absolute control of the country, purged and jailed more than 5,000 judges and prosecutors on allegations of being terrorists, and replaced these individuals with more than 15,000 loyalist judges and prosecutors. Most of the replacements were ardent supporters of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi – AKP) or strong sympathizers of Erdogan’s regime. The extensive purge of the judiciary sent a clear message to prosecutors and judges that they are beholden to Erdogan and under the absolute control of the government. Judges and prosecutors in Turkey know that if they violate the interests of the government, they too will land in jail and be labeled terrorists. An independent judiciary in Turkey no longer exists, as all prosecutorial and judicial decisions are directed by the government.

Why Is Turkey Handing Over the Khashoggi Case to Saudi Arabia?

The decision to hand over the Khashoggi case to Saudi Arabia was a matter of political expediency rather than accountability for the persons responsible for a brutal murder. Faced with an election that he already has postponed out of fear that he may not be reelected and a domestic economic crisis that continues to worsen, Erdogan knows he must do whatever is necessary to remain in power. The state of the economy – the Turkish lira down 10 percent this year after having shed 44 percent of its value in 2021, a growing budget deficit, and inflation at more than 54 percent in February 2022 – pales in comparison with the consequences Erdogan knows he will face if he loses the election.

Erdogan’s fears are well-founded. His regime is involved in billions of dollars of corrupt transactions, terrorist financing, human-rights violations, and the torturing and jailing of hundreds of thousands of the regime’s opponents on scant evidence. Erdogan urgently needs money to boost the economy and give the Turkish people at least temporary relief for the financial strains they have had to endure. The way to do that, Erdogan apparently believes, is to repair its relationship with Israel and other Gulf States. For example, Erdogan accused the United Arab Emirates of plotting July 15 coup attempt but then visited Dubai and invited UAE’s emirate to visit Turkey. He also invited the Israeli prime minister to visit Turkey. Erdogan’s latest bridge-building effort involved repairing its relationship with Saudi Arabia. The Saudi regime was interested but firmly stipulated that Erdogan first hand over the Khashoggi case to Saudi Arabia.

Under the circumstances, it is clear that the defendants in the Khashoggi case will not get a fair trial in Saudi Arabia. Less clear is the future for the hope for justice as expressed by Hatice Cengiz at the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2021, when she said, “Jamal is still alive more than he was and it makes me more hopeful to get justice. Of course I believe justice will be done for Jamal one day.” She also spoke about the reality of the situation when she said, “Because of politics, because of relationships, because of the power of money, people get away step-by-step from this case.” As people – especially the Western world – continue to distance themselves from the case to engage in ongoing trade relations with Saudi Arabia, the voices calling for justice fade into silence. Now the last hope for justice has been wiped away under the guise of repairing the relationship between Turkey and Saudi Arabia and boosting the Turkish economy in the run up to a presidential election that Erdogan will not allow himself to lose.

Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He also has been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, a number of articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in illicit economy. Dr. Cengiz holds two masters and two doctorate degrees from Turkey and the United States. His Turkish graduate degrees are in sociology. He has a master's degree from the School of International Service Program of American University and a Ph.D. from the School of Public Policy program of George Mason University. He is teaching Terrorism, American Security Policy and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.

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