ISTANBUL—It was a long shot at best when Turkey asked Saudi Arabia’s government to extradite 18 of its own employees to stand trial for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir answered with a definitive “no” Saturday. He said the suspects were Saudis and were being held in Saudi Arabia and that’s where they’d be tried, never mind that the crime took place at the Saudi consulate here in Istanbul.
Up to now, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has managed adroitly the crisis surrounding the dead Washington Post columnist. Leaks to selected international news media and official statements have forced the Saudis to abandon a string of denials and admit to the murder, enhancing Erdogan’s credibility and undercutting the Saudis’ image throughout the world. But the extradition demand may have been a step too far.
Turkey’s reason for asking the kingdom to extradite its own citizens in the absence of an extradition treaty—something that rarely happens—is not only that the murder happened on Turkish soil but that the Saudis will face a challenge staging a “transparent and fair trial” that will live up to the expectations of the international community, a senior Turkish official told The Daily Beast.
“It is clear that the judicial system in Turkey is better equipped to genuinely serve the cause of justice in this case,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It would be better for the reputation of our Saudi friends that the court proceedings take place in Turkey.”
Independent observers disagree.
Turkey’s courts “are a mess, not independent of the executive, and a case like this would be a challenge,” said Nate Schenkkan, director of special research at Freedom House, a U.S. human rights monitoring group.
Schenkkan said the Turkish system of justice “probably functions a bit better than the Saudi system, but that doesn’t mean it functions well.” He said the Khashoggi murder case should be the subject of an outside investigation.
Jubeir, while announcing that the suspects will be prosecuted in Saudi Arabia, also decried “hysterical” media coverage of the case. Media attention to Khashoggi’s murder has indeed been extraordinary, but that may be because, according to President Donald Trump and others, the man who may be responsible for it is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. “The prince...is running things and so if anybody were going to be, it would be him,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal.
Jubeir, speaking at an international forum in Bahrain on Saturday, promised: “We will know the truth. We will hold those responsible accountable.” But he also cautioned that “investigations take time.”
Saudi credibility is in tatters. Even though the kingdom arrested members of what Turkey calls the “assassination squad,” officials have yet to say what happened to Khashoggi’s remains. Was he dismembered, as Turkish officials said in leaks to the international media, or was his body rolled up in a rug and turned over to a local operative, as the Saudis claim? No one seems to know.
Yet experts doubt that Turkey would be the better venue for trying the case.
Schenkkan cited the high-profile case of Andrew Brunson, an American protestant pastor who was arrested two years ago on charges of spying and aiding terrorist groups. Brunson was released Oct. 10 after being found guilty and receiving a three-year suspended sentence, but that came after U.S. President Donald Trump put enormous political pressures on NATO ally Turkey, including economic sanctions.
Brunson “was not able to have a clear and open judicial process” in which the defendant can question in an adversarial manner the ways in which evidence was gathered, Schenkkan noted. Some witnesses were secret, and in one instance the defense was never able to question a witness.
Another case that’s drawn attention here is that of Taner Kilic, Amnesty International’s Turkish chairman who was released pending trial in August after 14 months in pre-trial detention. He was charged with membership in a terrorist organizations and aiding a terrorist organization. Amnesty called his detention a “travesty of justice of spectacular proportions.”
Cases move slowly in Turkish courts, with hearings spread out over months. Many defendants held on political charges are detained for well over a year.
“Pre-trial detention is used to be punitive. It is also arbitrary and routine,” said Andrew Gardner, AI’s senior researcher in Turkey. Under recent changes in the law, pre-trial detention can now last up to seven years, up from five years. He said in the case of Kilic, the charges were “absurd, baseless,” and not backed by reliable evidence.
“There’s a definite pattern of people being put on trial who are critics of the government,” Gardner said. He said the Brunson case “struck me as a similar to other politicized cases, and just like journalist, activists, human rights advocates being put on trial for baseless charges for political reasons.”
Turkey has the dubious distinction of being the world’s leading jailer of journalists, and the current number held is more than 230, human rights groups say.
According to Schenkkan, Turkey has a long history of punishing “all sorts of dissent” through the legal system. It predates Erdogan, “but it’s reached some new lows in the last few years.” He noted that leaders of a major political party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which is largely Kurdish, are now in jail. Civil society leaders have been targeted, business leaders “could come into the crosshairs as well.” Journalists are “just the most visible to the international community.”
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia remains under strong public pressure from the United States and other countries to come clean. Defense Secretary James Mattis said at the Bahrain conference that Khashoggi's death "must concern us all" and that the United States "does not tolerate this kind of ruthless action to silence Mr. Khashoggi, a journalist, through violence.”
Khashoggi’s murder was undermining regional stability, he said.
"Failure of any nation to adhere to international norms and the rule of law undermines regional stability at a time when it is needed most," Mattis told the conference.