By Ali Kucukgocmen
ISTANBUL (Reuters) -A Turkish prosecutor called on Thursday for the trial in Istanbul of Saudi suspects over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi to be halted and transferred to Saudi authorities, a move which comes as Turkey seeks to mend ties with Riyadh.
Khashoggi’s killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul four years ago triggered a global outcry and put pressure on Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
A U.S. intelligence report released a year ago said the prince 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.
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.
The killing and subsequent accusations strained ties between the two regional powers and led to an unofficial Saudi boycott of Turkish goods, which cut Ankara’s exports to Riyadh by 90%.
Erdogan now seeks better ties with states which had become bitter rivals in recent years, including Egypt, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Israeli and UAE leaders visited Ankara in recent months, but progress with Cairo and Riyadh has been slower. Erdogan said last month he hoped to take “concrete steps” with Riyadh soon.
The Istanbul court where the 26 Saudi suspects have been on trial in absentia for nearly two years said on Thursday it would ask for the Justice Ministry’s opinion on the request to transfer proceedings, and set the next hearing for April 7.
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.
At the time, Ankara said the verdict fell short of expectations, but has since softened its tone as part of the broader attempt to repair ties. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told broadcaster A Haber on Thursday that judicial cooperation between the two countries had improved.
Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, who attended the court session, said in a statement later she was “heartbroken” by the prosecutor’s request.
“No good will come of sending the case to Saudi Arabia,” she said. “We all know the authorities there will do nothing. How do we expect the killers to investigate themselves?”
SAUDIS SOUGHT TRANSFER
Last year the Turkish court rejected requests to add the U.S. intelligence assessment of Prince Mohammed’s role to the case file. It then asked for details of the Riyadh trial from Saudi authorities to avoid defendants being punished twice.
The Turkish prosecutor said Saudi authorities responded by asking for the case be transferred, and pledging to evaluate the accusations against the 26 defendants.
The request should be accepted, the prosecutor said, because the defendants were foreign citizens, the arrest warrants could not be executed and their statements could not be taken, leaving the case in abeyance or suspension.
The crown prince told The Atlantic monthly in an article published this month that he felt his own rights had been violated by the accusations against him as any person should be considered innocent until proved guilty.
Agnes Callamard, Amnesty International secretary general, said that Turkey was “betraying” Khashoggi and justice.
Callamard was the former U.N. special rapporteur for extrajudicial summary or arbitary executions and carried out the investigation that found Saudi officials “planned and perpetrated” Khashoggi’s killing.
“Nothing surprising though,” she said on Twitter about the prosecutor’s request. “Turkey is after all one of the worse jailers of journalists and cannot be counted on,” Callamard said, describing the move as “spineless”.
(Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Jonathan Spicer, David Clarke, William Maclean and Nick Macfie)