ISTANBUL — A court in Turkey transferred the murder trial of the Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia on Thursday, a move almost certain to end the last case aimed at serving justice for a heinous crime that drew global outrage.
The chief of a panel of judges announced the decision in the courtroom, granting a request last week by the prosecutor to transfer the case because none of the 26 Saudi suspects on trial are in Turkish custody. Turkey’s justice minister had endorsed the prosecutor’s request.
The decision was a blow to human rights and press freedom advocates who had hoped the Turkish trial would bring some measure of justice or at least make public more evidence of how the crime took place and who was involved.
“Transferring the Khashoggi trial from Turkey to Saudi Arabia would end any possibility of justice for him, and would reinforce Saudi authorities’ apparent belief that they can get away with murder,” Michael Page, the deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement released a day before the court’s decision.
The decision coincided with efforts by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to improve his country’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. Last week, the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said in a televised interview that “concrete steps” were on the way to mend ties with the Arab world’s richest state.
The Turkish trial, which opened in 2020, was largely symbolic because Saudi Arabia had refused to extradite the suspects and Turkish law does not allow convictions of people who have not testified.
Mr. Khashoggi was a prominent journalist who fell out with his government and moved to the United States, where he wrote columns for The Washington Post that were critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his plans to remake the kingdom. Mr. Khashoggi was killed and dismembered by a Saudi hit squad inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, where he had gone to get paperwork he needed to marry his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz.
His body has never been found.
Prince Mohammed has insisted he knew nothing of the murder plot in advance. However, the Central Intelligence Agency concluded that he had greenlighted the operation to kill or capture Mr. Khashoggi.
The murder, and the Turks’ dribbling out of details to keep the case in the spotlight, exacerbated longstanding tensions between Turkey and Saudi Arabia over Turkey’s relationship with political Islamists in the Arab world and its support for the anti-government uprisings of the Arab Spring, which Saudi Arabia largely opposed.
Saudi Arabia imposed an unofficial boycott of Turkish goods, drastically reducing the flow of Turkish exports to Saudi Arabia, and Turkey has more recently suffered a dramatic financial crisis that has caused the value of its currency to plummet.
In 2019, Saudi Arabia sentenced five men to death and three to prison terms over Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. The next year, the death sentences were changed to prison terms after one of Mr. Khashoggi’s adult sons pardoned the killers.
That trial reinforced the Saudi narrative that Mr. Khashoggi’s death was the result of a rogue operation without the oversight of top officials. The Saudis have never named the men who were sentenced, and a United Nations expert dismissed the trial as “the antithesis of justice.”
In endorsing the case’s transfer to Saudi Arabia last week, Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said in a statement that the trial would continue in Saudi Arabia and that Turkey would wait to see convictions and sentences before dropping its own case.
But it appeared unlikely that Saudi Arabia would hear the case, because Saudi officials have said they consider their trial the final word on the matter.
Safak Timur reported from Istanbul, and Ben Hubbard from Beirut, Lebanon.