ISTANBUL (Reuters) -Turkey’s justice minister said on Friday his ministry would approve a request to transfer a trial over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia, as Ankara seeks to mend ties with Riyadh.
Khashoggi’s fiancee Hatice Cengiz and rights groups condemned the move, saying Saudi Arabia could not be expected to hold a fair trial.
Khashoggi’s killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul four years ago grabbed headlines worldwide and strained ties between the two regional powers, leading to an unofficial Saudi boycott of Turkish goods that has cut Ankara’s exports to Riyadh by 90%.
A Turkish prosecutor called on Thursday for the Istanbul trial in absentia of 26 Saudi suspects to be halted and transferred to Saudi authorities, who requested the transfer in a response to a letter from the Turkish court.
The court requested the Justice Ministry’s opinion on the issue and is expected to rule on the request at its next hearing, set for April 7.
Amnesty International secretary general Agnes Callamard, who carried out a U.N.-led investigation that found Saudi officials “planned and perpetrated” the killing, described the prosecutor’s request as “spineless”.
The prosecutor said 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.
“As the ministry, we will send a positive opinion there (today) regarding the transfer of the case,” Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said on Friday, adding that Riyadh had requested the transfer.
In a meeting with reporters, Bozdag said that if Saudi authorities convict the defendants, the Turkish court will drop the case, and that if they are acquitted in the kingdom, the Turkish court may resume the trial.
In 2020, Saudi Arabia jailed eight people for between seven and 20 years for Khashoggi’s murder. None of the defendants were named, in what rights groups described as a sham trial.
A U.S. intelligence report released a year ago said Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had approved the operation to kill or capture Khashoggi. The Saudi government denied his involvement 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 President Tayyip Erdogan said had been ordered at the “highest levels” of the Saudi government.
But 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.
(Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Daren Butler and Hugh Lawson)