By AYSE WIETING and SUZAN FRASER, Associated Press

ISTANBUL (AP) — A Turkish court on Thursday decided to stay the trial in absentia of 26 Saudis accused of the gruesome murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and transfer the case to Saudi Arabia.

Kaghoggi, a US resident who wrote reviews of Saudi Crown Prince Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was killed on October 2, 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He had gone to the consulate for an appointment to collect the necessary documents for his marriage to his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. He never left the building.

Turkish officials claimed Khashoggi was killed and then dismembered with a bone saw inside the consulate by a team of Saudi agents sent to Istanbul. The group included a medical examiner, intelligence and security officers and people who worked for the Crown Prince’s office. His remains have not been found.

The Istanbul court’s decision comes despite warnings from human rights groups that handing the case over to the kingdom would lead to a cover-up of the murder, which has cast suspicion on the crown prince.

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It also comes as Turkey, which is in the grip of a deep economic downturn, tries to mend its troubled relationship with Saudi Arabia and a range of other countries in its region. Some media claimed that Riyadh had made improving relations conditional on Turkey dropping the deal, which had heightened tensions between the two countries.

The move would pave the way for a resolution of disputes between the two regional heavyweights since the 2011 Arab Spring, including Turkey’s support for Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, which Riyadh considers a terrorist group. Turkey has also sided with Qatar in a diplomatic dispute that has seen Doha boycotted by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Last week, the prosecutor handling the case recommended his transfer to the kingdom, arguing that the trial in Turkey would remain inconclusive. Turkey’s justice minister backed the recommendation, adding that the trial in Turkey would resume if the Turkish court was not satisfied with the outcome of the proceedings in the kingdom. It was unclear, however, whether Saudi Arabia, which has already tried some of the defendants behind closed doors, would open a new trial.

The court decided to stop the trial in accordance with the “positive opinion” of the Ministry of Justice, the private news agency DHA reported.

Human rights advocates had urged Turkey not to transfer the case to Saudi Arabia, arguing that justice for Khashoggi would not be served in Saudi courts.

“It’s an outrageous decision,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, saying the court had “approved” a political decision that would allow the government to mend its ties with Saudi Arabia. .

“In the interests of realpolitik, Turkey is ready to sacrifice justice for a blatant crime on its own soil,” she told The Associated Press. “(The decision) paves the way for other countries to commit assassinations on Turkish territory and get away with it.”

Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancée, said she would continue to seek justice.

“We will continue this (legal) process with all the power given to me, as a Turkish citizen,” she told reporters outside the courthouse.

“The two countries may be making a deal, the two countries may be opening a new chapter…but the crime is still the same,” she said. “The people who committed the crime have not changed. Governments and states must take a position of principle.

At the time of the crime, Turkey had apparently bugged the Saudi consulate and shared the audio of the murder with the CIA, among others.

The killing sparked international outrage and condemnation. Western intelligence agencies, as well as the US Congress, have said an operation of such magnitude could not have taken place without the prince’s knowledge.

Turkey, which had vowed to shed light on the brutal murder, began prosecuting the defendants in absentia in 2020 after Saudi Arabia rejected extradition requests. The defendants included two former aides to the prince.

Some of the men were tried in Riyadh behind closed doors. A Saudi court issued a final verdict in 2020 that sentenced five mid-level officials and agents to 20-year prison terms. The court initially ordered the death sentence but reduced the sentence after Khashoggi’s son Salah, who lives in Saudi Arabia, announced he had pardoned the defendants. Three others were sentenced to lesser prison terms.

Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.

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