Will Saudi Arabia hold a fair trial in Khashoggi murder case?

Saudi Arabia has arrested 18 Saudi nationals in connection with the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

Adel al-Jubeir
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir says the kingdom is determined to find all the facts in the case [Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters]

Istanbul, Turkey – When Saudi Arabia’s top prosecutor met with Istanbul’s chief public prosecutor on Monday, it was a rare display of cooperation in the investigation into the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Nearly three weeks since the two sides agreed to conduct a joint probe and almost a month since Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Ankara and Riyadh appear to be pursuing separate strategies with seemingly divergent aims.

The Saudis have also launched their own internal investigation, arresting 18 individuals, but have rejected Turkish requests to extradite the men.

For its part, Turkey has drip-fed evidence from its probe to local and international media, heaping pressure on the Saudis to provide answers. On Monday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called on the kingdom to reveal “the whole truth” about the murder.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has said that Riyadh is “determined to uncover every stone” in its investigation. 

“We want to make sure that those who are responsible are punished,” he told Fox News on October 21.

“We are determined to find out all the facts and we are determined to punish those who are responsible for this murder.”

‘Non-transparent trials’

Political leaders in the United States and Europe, as well as the United Nations and international human rights groups, have urged the Saudis to conduct a thorough, transparent, timely investigation and deliver accountability for the murder.

But legal and human rights experts told Al Jazeera that if Riyadh were to investigate and eventually try the suspects in Saudi Arabia, there would be little chance of a fair and transparent process.

“There is basically no separation of powers in Saudi Arabia,” said Noha Aboueldahab, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Doha. “The judicial system is not independent and as a result, you have unfair and non-transparent trials.”

“Saudi Arabia will probably use national security as an excuse to prevent the recording of this trial,” Aboueldahab, an expert on the prosecution of political leaders in the Arab world, added.


These practices are common in Saudi Arabia, Aboueldahab said, citing a recent UN report.

The June report stated that Saudi Arabia uses its anti-terror laws to torture suspects and that those in prison are prevented from talking to lawyers.

Antoine Madelin, director for international advocacy at the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), agreed with Aboueldahab’s view that the chances of a fair trial in the kingdom are small.

“Saudi Arabia has proven itself as a country where there is no independence of the judiciary and [has] a track record of human rights violations, particularly when these trials regard the Saudi Arabian authorities,” Madelin told Al Jazeera.

“Anything related to this crime will neither be independent nor democratic,” he argued.

Death penalty?

Suspects convicted of murder, rape, terrorism and drug trafficking offences face the death penalty under Saudi Arabia’s penal code.

Last year, at least 146 executions took place in the kingdom, Amnesty International said in a report.

According to Sultan Barakat, director of the centre for conflict and humanitarian studies at the Doha Institute in Qatar, if the suspects are executed, the truth of Khashoggi’s murder and who ordered the killing may become harder to uncover.

“I think if they are put on trial, we can see anything, [including] execution of the whole lot, so we’ll never know exactly what happened,” Barakat said. “That is not good for anyone, it’ll cover up the story.”

But Aboueldahab said the chances of the 18 suspects being tried and executed are slim because the case was being followed closely around the world.

“Saudi Arabia has been criticised for using the death penalty, as have other countries in the region, so it probably wouldn’t do Saudi Arabia any favours to give these people the death penalty,” she said.

International pressure

Turkish officials allege a 15-member Saudi “assassination squad” flew to Istanbul to kill Khashoggi, a critic of the powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. 

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said the team carried out reconnaissance north of Istanbul and deactivated the consulate’s security cameras.

While stopping short of accusing Saudi royals of the “savage” killing, Erdogan has also said Turkish authorities have gathered more evidence, which will be made public “when the time comes”.  

Meanwhile, al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, last week criticised the global outcry surrounding Khashoggi’s killing as “hysterical” and said the investigation would “take time” and facts should be determined as inquiries continue.

Aboueldahab said the Saudis could prolong their probe, dragging out the process while hoping the world’s attention will shift away from the murder.

“Yes, investigations take time. But pressure from the international community is crucial and that pressure needs to be sustained,” she said.

FIDH’s Madelin said international pressure had been extremely effective, effectively pushing Riyadh to shift its narrative surrounding the circumstances of Khashoggi’s killing.

“What has happened over the weeks has been a surprising chain of revelations that were totally outside of the Saudi Arabian government control,” he said.


“It has gradually pushed the Saudi government into a position to admit part of its responsibility, so in this context, I believe the only way to know more about who is responsible is by keeping pressure on them.”

Madelin also expressed concern that the Saudis may decide to hold a trial to show the world it had served justice, without actually holding those behind the killing responsible.

“I don’t think Saudi Arabia will allow this trial to be held independently, in case anyone wants to unveil the fact that authorities are actually responsible,” he said. “I fear that we will be having a mock trial, something to please the international community.” 

Aboueldahab concurred, adding that “there are thousands of Jamal Khashoggis, not just in Saudi Arabia, but in other countries in the region as well”.

“The thing is, if there is genuine concern [among Saudi Arabian authorities] about the fate of Jamal Khashoggi, I think you would see additional trials happening for all the other Saudi citizens who have been detained and tortured and ultimately killed.”

Source: Al Jazeera