ISTANBUL — A court in Turkey ordered the transfer of the trial in the murder of the Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia, a move almost certain to end the last case that held out some hope of serving justice for a heinous crime that drew global outrage.
The Turkish decision on Thursday was a blow to human rights advocates who had hoped this trial would at least make public more evidence of who was involved and how Mr. Khashoggi was killed and dismembered by a Saudi hit squad in 2018 inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, where he had gone to get paperwork he needed to marry his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz.
“Let’s not entrust the lamb to the wolf,” Ali Ceylan, a lawyer for Ms. Cengiz, told the court on Thursday before the decision was announced. “Let’s protect the dignity and honor of the Turkish nation, and let’s not make such a decision.” Mr. Ceylan reminded the court that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Turkish officials had said that justice did not exist in Saudi Arabia.
A panel of judges granted a request last week by the prosecutor in the trial to transfer the case because none of the 26 Saudi suspects were in Turkish custody. The transfer had been requested by Saudi Arabia in March, and Turkey’s justice minister endorsed the prosecutor’s request.
Gokmen Baspinar, another lawyer for Ms. Cengiz, told the court that Saudi Arabia’s trial of suspects in the case was already over and that many of the defendants in the Turkish trial had been acquitted there.
“It would be irresponsible for the Turkish nation to transfer the case to a country with no justice,” Mr. Baspinar said.
The decision coincided with efforts by Mr. Erdogan, the Turkish president, 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 chief judge who read the panel’s decision in court on Thursday was assigned to the case recently, and that hearing was only the third he had attended, fueling suspicion among rights activists that he was appointed for political reasons.
“It is a devastating blow to all of those who have worked on the case,” said Agnès Callamard, who led an extensive investigation of the killing for the United Nations and now heads Amnesty International. “It is cowardly, it is spineless, it is a denial of justice.”
Her report to the U.N. on the case relied heavily on information provided by the Turkish authorities, including an audio recording of the murder captured by Turkish intelligence. It detailed not only the hit squad’s movements, but also subsequent efforts by Saudi officials to cover up the crime.
She said the Turks were transferring the case in full knowledge that the Saudis would not pursue it further.
“Now politics goes ahead of justice,” she said.
The Turkish trial, which opened in 2020, was largely symbolic from the start because Saudi Arabia had refused to extradite the suspects and Turkish law does not allow convictions of people who have not testified.
But the trial’s proponents said it would at least make public evidence collected by the Turkish authorities, including possibly the recording of Mr. Khashoggi’s death, and pave the way for a real prosecutions if any of the defendants happened to be taken into custody.
After the hearing, Ms. Cengiz told reporters that she planned to appeal the decision and that Turkey’s relationship with Saudi Arabia should not affect Turkish courts.
“The two countries can open a new page in relations, but the crime is the same crime,” she said. “It didn’t change, and neither did the perpetrators.”
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 Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his plans to remake the kingdom. Mr. Khashoggi’s body has never been found.
Prince Mohammed has insisted he knew nothing of the murder plot in advance. However, the C.I.A. concluded that he had greenlighted the operation to kill or capture Mr. Khashoggi.
Turkish authorities dribbled out details to keep the case in the spotlight, which, along with the murder, aggravated longstanding tensions between Turkey and Saudi Arabia over Turkey’s relationship with political Islamists in the Arab world and its support for the antigovernment uprisings of the Arab Spring, which Saudi Arabia largely opposed.
Saudi Arabia had imposed an unofficial boycott of Turkish goods, drastically reducing the flow of Turkish exports to Saudi Arabia, and Turkey has more recently suffered a significant 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.