Staff who worked at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul around the time of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder told a court Friday that they were told to stay away from the residence on the day the dissident journalist went missing in 2018.
A cleaning lady, two drivers, and a technical worker were all denied access or told not to show up to work on October 2, they said on the first day of the trial at a Turkish court.
Consulate technical worker Zeki Demir said he was initially told that there would be renovations at Consul General Mohammed al-Otaibi’s home but was then asked to come in at 2 p.m.
“There were five or six people there. They stopped me from coming through the three entrances. They asked me to light up the tandoor (oven). There was an atmosphere of panic,” he said.
“I lit up the tandoor and they spoke with each other. I joked saying that if you fall in the tandoor then you will become kebabs. Then I left.”
The Consul General’s driver, Hakan Guven told the court that he took al-Otaibi and his family to the airport on October 8. Guven said al-Otaibi told him that he would return.
Their statements were included in the indictment, which lays out in detail the events leading up to the afternoon of October 2, when Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in a busy business district in Istanbul to pick up papers that would have allowed him to marry his fiancée Hatice Cengiz. He never emerged.
Lawyers for the 20 Saudi defendants, assigned by Turkey’s Bar Association for a fair trial, said they were unable to reach their clients.
The suspects named in the indictment include Ahmed al-Assiri, a former deputy head of Saudi Arabia’s general intelligence, and Saud al-Qahtani, a former adviser to the Saudi Crown Prince. Both men are accused of “instigating premeditated torturous murder with monstrous intent.” The remaining 18 defendants are being charged with “premeditated torturous murder with monstrous intent.”
Cengiz, United Nations special rapporteur Agnes Callamard, representatives of International press Institute (IPI), European Federation of Journalist (EFJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) were all present at the trial on Friday.
Cengiz, who is hoping the case will offer new clues to the whereabouts of Khashoggi’s remains, told journalists outside the court that the whole process was “exhausting both spiritually and psychologically” for her.
“It is a moral responsibility on our shoulders to pursue this murder,” she said.
She added that they will continue to seek justice both in Turkey and anywhere in the world.
Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings, said: “We are sending a very strong message to dictators around the world that they cannot get away with killing a journalist.”
Saudi Arabia held a trial in December and found eight people guilty of charges relating to Khashoggi’s death, but the proceedings were opaque and the defendants’ identities were not revealed. Callamard said that hearing from the witnesses in this formal space would give “far more legitimacy and strength to their statement.”
“We’re moving into a space of justice. The Saudi process was anything but justice, it was a travesty of justice in my opinion and it was closed, secret trial. Here we have a space where the victims are heard in a way that they have never been heard before,” she told media outside the court.
“It is important for truth telling because more information is coming up and more information will come up,” she added.
Despite her findings that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman knew about the murder, he was not mentioned by name at the hearing, Callamard added.
“He was mentioned in a tangential fashion,” she said.
She said she was unsure whether this was because of his diplomatic immunity or whether it was because the prosecution did not have enough evidence.
Ankara has repeatedly called for the suspects to be extradited and tried in Turkey where the crime took place. Riyadh has not complied with the request.
The Turkish indictment outlines a conspiracy among the defendants. It includes CCTV footage of the movement of the suspects — 15 of whom flew into Turkey from Saudi Arabia ahead of the killing — as well as eyewitness testimony from Turkish workers in the consulate who were given time off on the day of the murder.
The trial has brought fresh hope for Cengiz, who says she will not stop pursuing justice for her slain fiancée.
“I will continue to pursue all legal avenues to hold Jamal’s killers accountable and I will not rest until we get Justice for Jamal,” she said in a written statement to CNN. “Jamal’s killers and those who ordered his murder have evaded justice thus far. I hope this criminal case in Turkey brings to light the whereabouts of Jamal’s body, the evidence against the killers and the evidence of those behind the gruesome murder.”
The Saudi government has presented shifting stories about Khashoggi’s fate in the months following his death. Initially Saudi officials denied any knowledge of the journalist’s whereabouts, then shifted to arguing that a group of rogue operators carried out the murder without the involvement of Bin Salman. Turkish officials have said Riyadh has not been cooperative in their investigation.
US officials, however, have said such a mission – including the 15-man hit squad sent from Riyadh – could not have been carried out without the authorization of Bin Salman, and the CIA concluded that the Crown Prince had ordered the killing. Saudi authorities have vehemently denied the allegations.
In December 2019, 11 unnamed suspects were put on trial in Saudi Arabi. Eight people were found guilty of charges related to Khashoggi’s death, five of whom were sentenced to death. They were later pardoned by one of Khashoggi’s sons, sparing them from the death penalty in accordance with Saudi legal custom.
Al-Qahtani and al-Assiri were cleared by Saudi authorities. Both men, part of the Crown Prince’s inner circle , were relieved of their duties in the immediate aftermath of Khashoggi’s killing.
In a report last year, Callamard concluded that Saudi Arabia was responsible under international law for the “deliberate, premeditated execution” of Khashoggi, and called for an investigation into the role of the Crown Prince, saying there was “credible evidence meriting further investigation.”
CNN has reached out to the Saudi government for comment on the Istanbul trial.
Ipek Yezdani and CNN’s Gul Tuysuz reported from Istanbul. Emma Reynolds wrote from London.