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Justice Efforts For Jamal Khashoggi Were Hindered By Trump Administration's Response


Tomorrow marks a year since the killing of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Washington Post columnist was killed inside Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, and the shocking details of his death were revealed by Turkish officials as they called for justice. But as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul, their efforts were hindered by the Trump administration's response.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: A year ago, Turkish news broadcasts were dominated by one question - where was Jamal Khashoggi? - who hadn't been seen since he walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

KENYON: But soon enough, the question became where is Khashoggi's body, as Saudi officials admitted that he'd been killed by a group Turkey described as a Saudi hit squad. Turkey gave the U.N. and the CIA access to audio of the killing, leading both to point the finger at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who denies any involvement. But still, just last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reminded the U.N. General Assembly that justice hasn't been served. He's heard through an interpreter.


RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) Journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was brutally slaughtered last year, has become a symbol for the need of justice and equality in the region. And we will keep on following up the developments there as we are so much committed to this case.

KENYON: Erdogan followed up with an opinion piece in The Washington Post, where Khashoggi had been a contributor. It illustrated the limits of Ankara's ability to push this issue on its own. Erdogan wrote that Turkey still sees Saudi Arabia as a friend and ally and made a distinction between, quote, "the thugs who murdered Khashoggi and King Salman and his loyal subjects." Analysts say crucially it was the seemingly indifferent response from President Donald Trump that made clear to Turkey that it was on its own in this case. Trump said, quote, "it could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event. Maybe he did and maybe he didn't."

Sinan Ulgen at the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul says Trump's message that the U.S.-Saudi relationship was more important than solving the killing of a journalist effectively stymied Ankara's attempts to see a case built against the crown prince.

SINAN ULGEN: If you have an administration that is totally unwilling to put more pressures on Saudi Arabia or envisage any sort of sanctions against this leadership, we cannot really be hopeful that we will see any long-term consequences.

KENYON: Analyst Yusuf Erim at Turkish state TV's English channel TRT World says it's telling that the only actual trial to date is one carried out by the Saudis in Saudi Arabia in secret.

YUSUF ERIM: We don't know who's being tried. We don't know what they're being charged with. We don't know the prison sentences or the death sentences that have been handed out because the Saudis have been very opaque with their judicial proceedings inside the country.

KENYON: Analyst Sinan Ulgen says it doesn't look like the international community is prepared to pursue the matter further.

ULGEN: No, not really because what is going to matter is if there is any undermining of the U.S. support for the potential leadership of Mohammed bin Salman. That's ultimately what is most vital here. And as long as that support remains unchanged, unabated, there won't really be any consequences.

KENYON: Tomorrow, Khashoggi's Turkish fiancee and human rights officials plan a memorial event near the Saudi consulate, urging the world not to forget what happened there a year ago. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.