ISTANBUL — Turkey opened a trial into the death of the Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul on Friday, charging 20 Saudi citizens in absentia, in a case that friends and human rights officials welcomed as an important step in advancing the search for justice in his killing.
None of the accused were present for the trial — Saudi Arabia has declined to extradite them — and it was unclear whether the court could legally pursue the trial without defendants.
Nonetheless, the trial’s start was seen as a sign that Turkey and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who personally knew Mr. Khashoggi and was outraged that the killing took place in Istanbul — are determined to pursue those responsible and even implicate the Saudi kingdom’s day-to-day ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Mr. Khashoggi was killed when he visited the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018, to obtain papers that would allow him to marry his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. He never emerged from the meeting. His body was dismembered, and his remains have never been found.
The Turkish trial offers the closest chance for justice available, said Agnès Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, who arrived in Istanbul on Thursday to attend the trial.
“It is important because it is going to give something deeper to what has been happening so far,” she said on the eve of the trial. “It is going to give a different meaning and a more rigorous approach to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which is what we should expect from a trial.”
Despite Turkey’s poor recent record of judicial standards — rights officials have cited the justice system’s lack of independence and the abuse of defendants’ rights among other criticisms — Ms. Callamard said she hoped the proceedings would reveal more about the killing, including any role played by senior Saudi officials.
Mr. Khashoggi, 59, a Saudi dissident, fled the kingdom and wrote columns for The Washington Post that were critical of his country’s leadership. His killing belied the image of Prince Mohammed as a young ruler working to open up the kingdom’s economy and society.
Ms. Callamard concluded after a five-month investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s death that it had been carefully planned and endorsed by high-level Saudi officials, and she called for an international investigation. C.I.A. officials have concluded that Prince Mohammed ordered the killing.
Ms. Callamard said she hoped the trial would reveal what investigators had found in Mr. Khashoggi’s cellphone and computer, and whether the devices had been hacked. Friends of Mr. Khashoggi have suggested that there was a premeditated campaign by the Saudi government to attack him. Ms. Callamard also said she hoped transcripts of audio recordings of the events might be seen at the trial.
The Turkish indictment, which was made available in May to local journalists, accuses 18 men of carrying out murder with monstrous intent and inflicting grave torment.
Two others, both close aides to Prince Mohammed — Ahmed al-Asiri, the former deputy head of Saudi general intelligence; and Saud al-Qahtani, a former adviser to the crown prince — were indicted on a charge of incitement to murder with monstrous intent and inflicting grave torment. (The Saudi court dismissed charges against Mr. al-Asiri, and Mr. al-Qahtani was not charged.)
The Turkish indictment concludes that Mr. Khashoggi was “considered by Saudi officials and authorities as a threat against the government of Saudi Arabia, because of his articles, speeches in the meetings and conferences he joined, and his dissident acts for the change of the government.”
It continues, “As the authorities of Saudi Arabia Kingdom had received information that he would come back on that date, it was planned and assignments made accordingly to bring back the victim to Saudi Arabia, in case he did not accept and could not be brought back, to kill him.”
On issuing the indictment in March, the Istanbul prosecutor said in a statement that it was based on evidence from cellphone location records of the accused, records of their entry and exit from Turkey, and their presence at the consulate. Evidence was also drawn from searches of their hotel rooms, the consulate and the consul’s residence; from Mr. Khashoggi’s cellphone, laptop and iPad; and from witness statements, the statement added.
The indictment released to journalists includes screen shots of death threats that Mr. Khashoggi received on Twitter but does not mention the audio recordings as evidence. It does not seem to make a strong case implicating Prince Mohammed, though it states that a separate investigation is continuing into the destruction of evidence connected to the murder and its instigation.
“These words indicate the chief prosecutor will not stop the pursuit, no matter where the investigation reaches,” Yasin Aktay, an adviser to Mr. Erdogan and a former lawmaker, wrote in a column in the Turkish daily Yeni Safak in March.
Ms. Cengiz, Mr. Khashoggi’s fiancée, who was waiting outside the consulate for Mr. Khashoggi and who was the first to raise the alarm, is one of the aggrieved parties in the indictment and began giving testimony on Friday.
The indictment names 54 witnesses, including 26 Turkish members of staff of the consulate and the consul’s residence, among them drivers, clerks, translators, cooks, cleaners and a teaman.
According to statements recorded in the indictment, members of the residence staff said they had been told not to come into work on the day of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing because of repair work on the building. Employees in the consulate were told to remain in their offices and saw little of what transpired.
One of the drivers transported several of the indicted men, who he said had instructed him to put several large black bags into the car and hand them to a local collaborator in an unspecified location. The driver later said he had learned that the bags contained the remains of Mr. Khashoggi. He described the collaborator as Turkish or Syrian, wearing a white shirt and glasses, but did not identify him further.
Saudi officials have said that Mr. Khashoggi’s remains were handed to a local collaborator in Turkey but have not revealed his identity. Turkish investigators do not appear to have identified the man.
Other witnesses expected to be called are Ayman Nour, an Egyptian politician; Mr. Aktay, the adviser to Mr. Erdogan; and Turan Kislakci, the head of the Turkish-Arab Journalists’ Association. All three are former associates of Mr. Khashoggi who were closely involved in alerting the authorities when Mr. Khashoggi disappeared.
Ms. Cengiz said in a statement on Thursday that she hoped the trial would help reveal the whereabouts of Mr. Khashoggi’s remains.
Mr. Erdogan is pursuing a proxy war on several political and regional levels with the Saudi crown prince — although he has made a point of showing respect to the Saudi king — and will be seeking a verdict that damages his rival, said Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“He is going to use the trial to embarrass the crown prince by reaching a very different set of conclusions,” Mr. Cagaptay said, “and also having his own verdict so that the case does not end with the Saudi verdict.”
Ms. Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur, said the trial had a broader significance.
“It is important also for the rest of the world — we have to keep insisting that no one can kill a journalist and get away with it lightly,” she said. “We need to keep insisting that he pays a price,” she added of Prince Mohammed.
Erol Onderoglu, the Turkey representative for Reporters Without Borders, called on Turkey to conduct the trial with full transparency and with international standards of due process.
“This trial in Istanbul now represents the best hope for justice for Jamal Khashoggi following a blatant miscarriage of justice in the Saudi courts,” he said. “We will be monitoring closely.”