The United Nations on Wednesday published a detailed investigation report confirming that the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was a premeditated attack planned and executed by senior Saudi officials. The 99-page document, the product of a six-month investigation, recommended a slew of sanctions on Riyadh while also highlighting Turkey’s own poor record on press freedom.
In October 2018, Saudi officials killed and dismembered Khashoggi, a U.S. permanent resident, triggering a diplomatic crisis between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Turkey initially sought redress – including the extradition of suspects – through trilateral negotiations with the kingdom and the United States, leveraging its evidence against Riyadh through a steady stream of strategic leaks to the media. After multiple calls from civil society and the UN, it finally called for an international inquiry in mid-November.
Ankara, which has used Khashoggi’s murder to discredit Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman and pressure Riyadh to shape its foreign policy in line with Turkish interests, was quick to “strongly endorse” the UN report’s recommendations. Yet Turkish media, mostly owned by Erdogan or his cronies, ignored the special rapporteur’s recommendations for Turkey itself.
While Ankara has played victim to the Saudi assault on the Washington Post columnist, Turkey has been the world’s top jailer of journalists since 2016 – and leads in the number of renditions it conducts against dissident citizens around the globe. The UN report thus urged Turkey to “build on its response” to Khashoggi’s murder by “freeing all those currently detained for the peaceful expression of their views and opinions,” including journalists and academics.
Erdogan has reasons to suppress these facts as he faces his greatest political challenge yet, with Istanbul heading to a controversial rerun of its mayoral election this Sunday. Polls show that the candidate from Erdogan’s party is poised to lose the revote in Turkey’s economic capital. In the campaign, Erdogan has painted himself as the defender of democracy against authoritarians such as Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. In this dichotomy, there is little room for concerns, in the words of the UN report, about Turkey’s “repeated and widespread arbitrary detentions, and unfair trials, of journalists and others on the basis of their exercise of their right to freedom of expression.”
Meanwhile, the UN report also criticized Turkey’s lack of full cooperation in the UN’s investigation of the Khashoggi murder. Of the seven hours of audio recording that Turkish intelligence obtained from the consulate, the report noted, Ankara made only 45 minutes available to investigators. “The remaining six hours and 15 minutes may or may not be relevant to the inquiry,” the report stated, “but without doubt there remains much more recorded information than that made available to the Special Rapporteur.”
It is impossible to know what those six-plus hours of audio contain, or why Ankara has refrained from sharing it. But the special rapporteur reminded both the United States and Turkey that they had a “duty to protect and warn” Khashoggi if they had any prior knowledge of “real and imminent or foreseeable” threats on the Saudi dissident’s life. In the 45 minutes Ankara made available, the UN found “insufficient evidence” to suggest that either the United States or Turkey had such knowledge, leaving key questions unanswered.
If Erdogan is sincere about his concern for impunity in the case of Khashoggi’s murder, he could still provide the full evidence to the UN investigators. But, more importantly, if he endorses the UN report’s call to action, he could take the lead by implementing the special rapporteur’s recommendations for Turkey’s own persecuted journalists and academics.
Aykan Erdemir is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Merve Tahiroglu is a research analyst. Follow Aykan and Merve on Twitter @aykan_erdemir and @MerveTahiroglu. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.