As Turkey Ends Inquiry, Prospects Dim for Justice in Khashoggi Killing

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BEIRUT, Lebanon — When Turkey this week announced indictments against 20 suspects in the killing of the dissident Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, the prospects dimmed of anyone ever being held accountable for the crime.

None of the suspects are in Turkey, and Turkish courts do not normally try defendants in absentia. Calls for international legal action have gained little traction. And human rights advocates doubt that Saudi Arabia’s justice system will ever punish the suspects charged there.

“For someone like Jamal to be killed in that way and the world remains silent?” Mr. Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancé, Hatice Cengiz, wrote in a text message to The New York Times this week. “When will the world take action after this? And how does the West defend itself? With values? Where are the values?”

Mr. Khashoggi was a prominent Saudi journalist who broke with the kingdom’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and fled to the United States, where he wrote opinion columns critical of the Saudi leadership for The Washington Post.

In October 2018, when he went to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to retrieve paperwork he needed to marry Ms. Cengiz, he was killed and dismembered by a team of Saudi agents. His remains have not been found.

After weeks of denials, Saudi officials acknowledged that the kingdom’s agents had killed Mr. Khashoggi, but they have insisted that the killing was neither premeditated nor ordered by Prince Mohammed. The Central Intelligence Agency has assessed that the crown prince had likely ordered the operation.

The killing struck a major blow to Prince Mohammed’s international reputation, but he has paid few tangible costs. After a brief hiatus, investors and businessmen have returned to Saudi Arabia, which now holds the presidency of the Group of 20, allowing Prince Mohammed to stand among the world’s most powerful leaders.

But a few efforts to ensure accountability are still moving forward.

On Wednesday, Turkey announced the end of its investigation into the killing with indictments against 20 Saudi suspects. Eighteen were charged with “murder with monstrous intent to inflict grave torment.”

Two close aides to Prince Mohammed were charged with incitement to murder: Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri, the former deputy head of Saudi intelligence, and Saud al-Qahtani, a former royal court adviser who has been identified by intelligence agencies as the plot’s leader.

But the prospects of a trial remain uncertain. None of the suspects are in Turkish custody, and Saudi officials have said none will be extradited. Turkish law allows for trials in absentia, but they normally cannot reach verdicts without testimony from the accused.

Agnes Callamard, a United Nations expert in extrajudicial killings who investigated the Khashoggi case, said that even a limited Turkish trial would be valuable because it would make more evidence about the crime public.

“To the extent that the law allows it, we must demand a trial in absentia,” she said, adding she had asked Turkish officials to clarify how they plan to proceed. “Of course, it won’t do much for justice in the traditional sense, but it will do a lot in terms of truth-telling.”

Ms. Callamard had called for an international criminal investigation but the United Nations has not pursued one. Nonetheless, she said, pressure had to remain on the case to “show others around the world who are tempted to kill a journalist to think twice.”

In December, a Saudi court sentenced five men to death in connection with Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. Even for those five, who have not been publicly identified but who are not believed to be high-ranking officials, legal scholars say that the judicial process is far from complete and that the kingdom has left open the possibility of a pardon.

To be carried out, the death sentences, usually done by beheading in Saudi Arabia, must be upheld by an appeals court and the high court and approved by the king — a process that could drag on for years.

The Saudi justice system follows Islamic Shariah law, which has a number of ways to classify murder. Some imply premeditation and brutality and are difficult or impossible to pardon. But the kingdom classified the Khashoggi killing as a retribution case, a category that makes it similar to a civil suit between the killers and Mr. Khashoggi’s heirs.

In such a case, any one of the victim’s heirs can decide to pardon the killers, saving them from execution, said Abdullah Alaoudh, a Saudi legal scholar and senior fellow at Georgetown University. (Dr. Alaoudh’s father is on trial in Saudi Arabia on charges that human rights groups have dismissed as political.)

Dr. Alaoudh suspects that the kingdom classified the Khashoggi case as retribution to allow it to avoid execution.

“They knew that using the word retribution left the door open for a pardon,” he said.

While Saudi Arabia has not identified the five convicts or stated whether they are in jail, it has named two who were exonerated: General Asiri, the former intelligence chief, was found not guilty, and Mr. al-Qahtani, the former royal adviser, was not tried for lack of evidence, despite a designation by the United States Treasury Department that called him “part of the planning and execution of the operation that led to the killing of Mr. Khashoggi.”

Officials at the Saudi Embassy in Washington declined to comment.

Both the Treasury and State Departments have sanctioned Saudi officials in connection with Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, and the Senate unanimously passed a largely symbolic resolution holding Prince Mohammed “personally accountable” for Mr. Khashoggi’s death.

But further measures to hold the kingdom, and Prince Mohammed, accountable have been blocked by the Trump administration, which considers Saudi Arabia a key partner in the Middle East and an important buyer of American weapons.

U.S. lawmakers have sought legislation to limit arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and in December they passed a provision requiring the director of national intelligence to declassify what the United States knows about the involvement of high-level Saudi officials in Mr. Khashoggi’s death.

The director failed to provide the information by the 30-day deadline, and this month the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner and Richard Burr, urged the acting director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell, to reconsider the decision not to declassify the information.

Mr. Grenell’s office has said that it was not releasing the information so as not to reveal intelligence sources and methods.

Also this month, Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat and member of the intelligence committee, said he would seek another way to release the information because he deemed it in the public interest.

“If our country and our friends and our partners do nothing in the face of this barbaric act, it sends a message around the world that it’s open season on journalists,” Mr. Wyden told reporters.

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