ISTANBUL — Turkey opened a trial into the death of the Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul on Friday, accusing 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 case without defendants.
Nonetheless, the start of the proceedings 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.
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 undermined the image of Prince Mohammed as a young ruler working to open up the kingdom’s economy and society.
The Saudi government has prosecuted 11 men for carrying out the killing, and sentenced five of them to death in December, but did not find any senior officials responsible. The Turkish indictment 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 incitement to murder with monstrous intent and inflicting grave torment.
Ms. Cengiz described in testimony to the court how she first realized something was wrong as she waited for Mr. Khashoggi outside the consulate.
“Someone of 25 to 30 years old came out,” she said, according to Turkish reporters who were inside the court. “He had an anxiety-inducing, fearful facial expression.”
“He said ‘I checked the rooms, there’s nobody,’ but he couldn’t look at my face,” she added. “At that moment, I experienced a fear I had never experienced before in my life. It wasn’t only fear, it was horror.”
She named a consulate employee called Ekrem Sultan as the person who had called Mr. Khashoggi to attend a meeting on Oct. 2. “They summoned him with great betrayal and trickery,” she said.
“When they killed Jamal, they hurt something very big,” she concluded. “They hurt the image of Islam and justice.”
Yasin Aktay, an adviser to Mr. Erdogan and close friend of Mr. Khashoggi, described how Mr. Khashoggi’s criticism of Prince Mohammed and his policies, in particular his prosecution of the war in Yemen and boycott of Qatar, had forced him to flee Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Khashoggi’s role as the head of advocacy group Democracy for the Arab World Now irritated the Saudi leadership still further, Mr. Aktay said. “The activities of the association made the government of Saudi Arabia angry,” he noted. “To them, democracy is like a curse.”
Mr. Aktay said that Mr. al-Qahtani had communicated with Mr. Khashoggi on WhatsApp and told him that he needed to stop talking and return to Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Aktay said he had advised his friend not to go to the Oct. 2 meeting at the Saudi Consulate. “I said it might be a trap, but he did not take my warning seriously,” he said.
Seven other Turkish witnesses who worked at the consulate also took the stand on Friday. Several workers said they were ordered not to go to the consul’s residence, a building down the street from the consulate, that day.
Zeki Demir, a technician, said he was called to the consul’s residence at 2 p.m. on Oct. 2 to light the gas oven in the garden used for barbecues. “There was an air of panic,” he said. “It was as if they wanted me to leave as soon as possible. I left after lighting the oven.”
Turkish lawyers representing the defendants said that they had not been able to reach them for consultations, but they said that their clients denied the claims.
The board of judges announced that the next hearing would be held Nov. 24.
The Turkish trial offers the closest chance for justice available in the Khashoggi killing, said Agnès Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, who arrived in Istanbul on Thursday to attend.
“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,” she said on the eve of the proceedings.
Despite Turkey’s reputation in recent years for poor application of judicial standards — critics 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 chain of command in the killing.
Ms. Callamard concluded after a five-month investigation that Mr. Khashoggi’s death had been carefully planned and endorsed by high-level Saudi officials. 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 which could indicate intent to do him harm.
She said the proceedings 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.
The Turkish indictment alleges 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.” The intention of the Saudi authorities was to bring him back to the kingdom and if he did not agree, to kill him, the indictment states.
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 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 tea server.
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.”