ISTANBUL: Turkey on Friday initiated a trial in absentia of at least 20 Saudi suspects, including two former aides to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, over charges of killing and dismembering The Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
Khashoggi, the 59-year-old insider-turned-critic, was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018 where he had gone to obtain documents for his wedding to Turkish fiancee Hatice Cengiz.
Turkish prosecutors claim Saudi deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri and the royal court's media czar Saud al-Qahtani led the operation and gave orders to a Saudi hit team.
They were formally charged in March with "instigating the deliberate and monstrous killing, causing torment".
Some 18 other suspects — including intelligence operative Maher Mutreb who frequently travelled with the crown prince on foreign tours, forensic expert Salah al-Tubaigy, and Fahad al-Balawi, a member of the Saudi royal guard — were charged with "deliberately and monstrously killing, causing torment".
The prosecutor has already issued arrest warrants for the suspects who are not in Turkey, so they face life terms without the likelihood of ever serving any conviction.
Cengiz, who is a complainant in the case, was attending the trial alongside the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard.
Yasin Aktay, a close friend of Khashoggi and adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling party, was also in the courtroom.
Erdogan has said the order to murder Khashoggi came from "the highest levels" of the Saudi government but has never directly blamed Prince Mohammed.
'Continue search for justice'
"We have confidence in the Turkish judiciary. Now, the judicial process has started. We will continue our search for justice, here in Turkey and everywhere else, using every means available," Cengiz told journalists after the hearing ended.
It was Cengiz who had notified authorities of the disappearance of her fiance after she had waited for several hours outside the Saudi consulate.
During the Istanbul prosecutor's investigation, the suspects' phone records, their presence at the consulate confirmed by CCTV images, as well as Khashoggi's laptop, two phones, and an iPad were analysed.
Khashoggi was killed and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in a case that tarnished the crown prince's reputation despite his strenuous denial of any involvement.
Khashoggi's remains have never been officially found.
Marble stone around furnace 'bleached'
Saudi Arabia describes the murder as a "rogue" operation but both the CIA and Callamard have directly linked the crown prince — the de facto ruler and heir to the Saudi throne — to the killing.
During the hearing on Friday, Cengiz and a Turkish employee of the Saudi consul's residence in Istanbul testified.
According to Callamard, the employee said he had been called to the residence on the day of the murder to light a large oven in the garden "where four or five 'guests'" were already present.
"When he returned three days later, he discovered the marble stone around the furnace had been bleached," she added.
The next hearing in the case will be on November 24.
'Travesty of justice'
A closed-door trial of 11 suspects in Saudi Arabia ended in December with five unnamed people sentenced to death. The crown prince's former aides, Assiri and Qahtani, were exonerated.
"The Saudi process was anything but justice. It was a travesty of justice," Callamard said after the hearing in Turkey.
The Turkish case "sends a very strong message to dictators around the world that they cannot get away with killing a journalist," she added.
The sons of Khashoggi said they forgave his killers in May this year, a moved expected to allow the government to grant clemency for the five convicts on death row.
Relations between Ankara and Riyadh are rocky, having worsened significantly after Khashoggi's murder.
The two countries are also on opposing sides in the Libyan war, where Ankara has recently helped turn the tide in favour of the UN-recognised government in Tripoli.