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Turkish court refuses to admit US report as evidence in Khashoggi murder trial

Jamal Khashoggi's fiancee Hatice Cengiz asked the Istanbul court to add the newly declassified report to the case's evidence file
Hatice Cengiz
Hatice Cengiz attended the third hearing in the trial (AFP)

A Turkish court trying 26 Saudi suspects in absentia for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi refused on Thursday to admit a US report blaming the kingdom's crown prince for the killing, despite a petition from the journalist's fiancee, Hatice Cengiz.

The court, in Istanbul, is trying two close former aides of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a case that has gained added attention after the delayed release last week of the declassified US assessment of the October 2018 killing.

Khashoggi, a US resident, journalist and prominent government critic, was murdered and dismembered inside the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul after going there to get documents for his wedding to Cengiz.

Cengiz, accompanied by a German diplomat, attended the third hearing in the trial and asked the court to add the US report to the evidence case file.

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But the presiding judge rejected her petition on the grounds that it would "bring nothing" to the trial, instead allowing her to file a new request with prosecutors spearheading the Turkish government's case.

The US intelligence report "directly attributes responsibility to the crown prince. Therefore, we want this to be taken into account by the court," Cengiz told reporters after the hearing.

Turkish prosecutors allege that former Saudi deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri and the royal court's ex-media czar Saud al-Qahtani led the operation and gave orders to a Saudi hit squad.

The declassified US report said Washington had grounds to conclude that Prince Mohammed, also known as MBS, "approved" the operation since it fit a pattern of him "using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad".

Cengiz said, following the report's release last week, that the crown prince should be punished without delay, adding there was "no longer any political legitimacy" for him.

On Monday, Reporters Without Borders filed a 500-page criminal complaint against MBS in Germany, accusing him of "crimes against humanity" in Khashoggi's murder and the imprisonment of other journalists.

Turkish-Saudi relations

Thursday's hearing took witness testimonies from two Turkish employees of the Saudi consulate - a driver and a security guard.

Driver Edip Yilmaz said he and his colleagues were locked in a room by the consulate's security team and not allowed to leave on the day of Khashoggi's murder.

"It gave me the impression that something abnormal was going on," the driver told the court.

The next hearing has been scheduled for July 8.

Erol Onderoglu, Turkish representative for the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which monitored the hearing, said the Turkish trial was a "step in the right direction", but added that it "speaks to the truly abysmal situation within Saudi Arabia, where the trial that was held in this case represented a complete mockery of justice".

For more than two weeks after the murder, Saudi officials stressed that the journalist had left the building alive before eventually acknowledging that he was killed. Riyadh still maintains that the assassination was a rogue operation that occurred without the approval of top officials.

Five suspects who were sentenced to death in an opaque trial in Riyadh last year later had their sentences commuted to 20 years in jail.

Relations between Ankara and Riyadh deteriorated sharply in the immediate aftermath of Khashoggi's death.

But Turkey has been taking steps to mend its relations with Saudi Arabia as it looks for regional allies and has refrained from commenting on the declassified US report.

Onderoglu suggested that diplomatic calculations might have influenced the court's decision.

"Our concern is that the court has taken a more passive stance... because of strategic relations or the state of diplomatic relations," Onderoglu told reporters, as reported by AFP.

"We hope that this is not the case."