TURKEY: ‘INSULTING TURKISHNESS’ CASE PROCEEDS UNDER REVISED LAW


Ministry of Justice decision suggests spreading Christianity may be unlawful in Turkey.

ISTANBUL, March 20 (Compass Direct News) – Turkey’s decision last month to try two Christians under a revised version of a controversial law for “insulting Turkishness” because they spoke about their faith came as a blow to the country’s record of freedom of speech and religion.

A Silivri court on Feb. 24 received the go-ahead from the Ministry of Justice to try Christians Turan Topal and Hakan Tastan under the revised Article 301 – a law that has sparked outrage among proponents of free speech as journalists, writers, activists and lawyers have been tried under it. The court had sent the case to the Ministry of Justice after the government on May 8, 2008 put into effect a series of changes – which critics have called “cosmetic” – to the law.

The justice ministry decision came as a surprise to Topal and Tastan and their lawyer, as missionary activities are not illegal in Turkey. Defense lawyer Haydar Polat said no concrete evidence of insulting Turkey or Islam has emerged since the case first opened two years ago.

“The trial will continue from where it left off – to be honest, we thought they wouldn’t give permission [for the case to continue],” said Polat, “because there was no persuasive evidence of ‘degrading Turkishness and Islam’ in the case file.”

A Ministry of Justice statement claimed that approval to try the case came in response to the original statement by three young men – Fatih Kose, Alper Eksi and Oguz Yilmaz – that Topal and Tastan were conducting missionary activities in an effort to show that Islam was a primitive and fictitious religion that results in terrorism, and to portray Turks as a “cursed people.”

Prosecutors have yet to produce any evidence indicating the defendants described Islam in these terms, and Polat said Turkey’s constitution grants all citizens freedom to choose, be educated in and communicate their religion, making missionary activities legal.

“This is the point that really needs to be understood,” said Polat. “In Turkey, constitutionally speaking it is not a crime to be a Christian or to disseminate the Christian faith. However, in reality there have been problems.”

The lawyer contended that prosecuting lawyers have given political dimensions to the case by rendering baseless accusations in a nationalistic light.

“From their point of view, missionary activity carried out by missionaries of imperialistic countries is harmful for Turkish culture and the country overall,” Polat said.

Tastan said that although he has always been confident that he and Topal will be acquitted, the decision of the Ministry of Justice to try them under Article 301 left him deeply disappointed in his own country.

“After this last hearing, I realized that I didn’t feel as comfortable as I had been in the past,” Tastan told Compass. “I believed that surely the Ministry of Justice would never make the decision they did.”

Tastan said he was uneasy that his country would deem his Christian faith as insulting to the very Turkishness in which he takes pride.

“This is the source of my uneasiness: I love this country so much, this country’s people, that as a loving Turk who is a Christian to be tried for insulting Turkey has really cut me up,” said Tastan. “Because I love this nation, I’ve never said anything against it. That I’m a Christian, yes, I say that and I will continue to do so. But I think they are trying to paint the image that we insult, dislike and hate Turks. This really makes me sad and heartsick.”

If nothing else, Tastan said, the trial has provided an opportunity for Turkish Christians to show God’s love and also make themselves known to their compatriots. He called the ministerial decision duplicitous.

“A government that talks the European Union talk, claims to respect freedom, democracy, and accept everyone, yet rejects me even though I’m a Turkish citizen who is officially a Christian on his ID card, has made me sad,” he said. “That’s why I’m disappointed.”

 

No-Shows

At the time of their arrests, Topal and Tastan were volunteers with The Bible Research Center, which last week acquired official association status and is now called “The Society for Propagating Knowledge of the Bible.” In the last court hearing, prosecutors demanded that further inquiries be conducted into the nature of the association since the defendants used their contact lists to reach people interested in Christianity.

“Because they think like this, they believe that the Bible center is an important unit to the missionary activities,” said Polat. “And they allege that those working at this center are also guilty.”

The court has yet to decide whether police can investigate the Christian association.

Polat and the defendants said they believe that as no evidence has been presented, the case should come to a conclusion at the next hearing on May 28.

“From a legal standpoint, we hope that they will acquit us, that it will be obvious that there is no proof,” said Tastan. “There have only been allegations … none of the witnesses have accused us in court. I’m not a legal expert, but I believe that if there is no proof and no evidence of ‘insulting,’ then we should be set free.”

The initial charges prepared by the Silivri state prosecutor against Tastan and Topal were based on “a warning telephone call to the gendarme” claiming that Christian missionaries were trying to form illegal groups in local schools and insulting Turkishness, the military and Islam.

Despite a court summons sent to the Silivri and Istanbul gendarme headquarters requesting six gendarme soldiers to testify as prosecution witnesses, none have stepped forward to do so. At a June 24, 2008 hearing, two witnesses for the prosecution declared they did not know the defendants and had never seen them before facing them in the courtroom. Several witnesses – including one of the original complainants, Kose – have failed to show up on various trial dates.

“We believe the case has arrived to a concluding stage, because all evidence has been collected and the witnesses have been heard,” Polat said. “We believe the accused will be dismissed. The inverse would surprise us.”

Polat underlined that while the case shows that human rights violations in Turkey are still a “serious problem,” it is also true that Turkey’s desire to join the European Union has brought sincere efforts to improve democratic processes. He attested, however, that establishing a true democracy can be a long process that requires sacrifices.

“It is my conviction that there is no other way for people to believe in and establish democracy than through struggle,” he said.

Tastan added that he sees hope that the notion that being “Turkish” means being Muslim is breaking. Due to exposure to media coverage of the murder trial of the April 18, 2007 slaughter of three Christians in Malatya, he said, Turks are becoming aware that there are fellow citizens who are Christians and are even dying for their Lord.

“This makes me happy, because it means freedom for the Turkish Christians that come after us,” said Tastan. “At least they won’t experience these injustices. I believe we will accomplish this.”

For the time being, though, the Ministry of Justice’s decision that Tastan and Topal can be tried under the revised Article 301 law appears to contribute to the belief that to promulgate a non-Islamic faith in Turkey is tantamount to treason. As Turkish online human rights magazine Bianet headlined its coverage of the decision, “Ministerial Edict: You Can Be a Christian But Do Not Tell Anyone!”  

Report from Compass Direct News

INDIA: ORISSA BRACES FOR MORE VIOLENCE AFTER ANOTHER MURDER


Suspecting cover-up, Communist investigators say 500 people may have been killed.

NEW DELHI, November 5 (Compass Direct News) – Terrified Christians already ravaged by more than two months of violence in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district braced for more carnage as suspected Maoists today gunned down a local worker of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Dhanu Pradhan was an RSS activist said to be on the Maoists’ hit list. Police said he was shot by three suspected Maoists in Kumharigaon village under Brahmanigaon jurisdiction in Kandhamal at 1 p.m., reported The Indian Express. Modern India’s worst-ever spate of violence began in the forest district of Kandhamal on Aug. 24, a day after a leader of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), Laxmanananda Saraswati, was killed.

Although a Maoist group admitted killing Saraswati and four of his aides, the VHP blamed local Christians for the assassinations. The wave of violent attacks carried on unabated for more than two months, destroying at least 4,500 houses and churches in the district.

More than 500 people, mostly Christian, might have been killed in the past few months’ violence in Kandhamal district, according to a report by a Communist Party fact-finding team. The report also suggested that the state government downplayed and covered up evidence of unreported deaths.

“The official figure for deaths has been reported to be 31, however, a senior government official on the condition of anonymity informed that he himself consigned two hundred dead bodies – found from the jungle – to flames after getting them collected in a tractor,” said the report by the Communist Party of India-Marxist-Leninist (CPI-ML).

The unnamed official estimated that, based on the intensity and pace of killings, the number of those killed was more than 500, according to the report. The fact-finding team visited Kandhamal district on Oct. 15-16 and published its report in the Oct. 27 issue of the party’s official publication, Liberation.

The report, signed by CPI-ML member J.P. Minz, also said that Hindu extremists might have used state government machinery to “minimize the evidence and possibly destroy dead bodies.”

Dr. John Dayal, a member of the National Integration Council of the Government of India, told Compass the report was startling but not surprising.

“I have been tabulating the data from independent church groups,” he said. “Even the Bishop’s House in Bhubaneswar has maintained that tens of thousands of refugees are hiding in forests, many of them with injuries of various degrees of grievousness.”

Dayal said that people must have been killed in the forests. “Even in villages, bodies have been discovered in neighboring fields,” he added.

The fact-finding team reported that the numerous attacks, acts of vandalism and killings took place “in full view of police, and the police remained mute spectators.” At least 200 Christian villages and 127 church and prayer halls were either destroyed or burned, it added.

Victims in numerous relief camps told the fact-finding team that the VHP and its youth wing, Bajrang Dal, were responsible for the tensions and violence.

“They used to organize meetings of the Kandha tribals and incite them to attack the Christian hamlets and also provided funds for doing this,” the report said.

Dayal said the Supreme Court of India should act on the report’s findings.

 

‘Great Terror’

The CPI-ML reported that Christians continued to experience “great terror,” and that Hindu nationalist groups were demanding the withdrawal of security personnel sent by the federal government to contain the violence.

“Riot victims are frightened to go back to their villages because they have been threatened that if they return they will be cut into pieces,” said the report. “The rioters are also proclaiming that only Hindu converts will be allowed to return. On the other hand, those in charge of the relief camps are pressuring the riot victims to return to their villages, saying that the life has returned to normalcy and peace has returned.”

The Indian Express yesterday reported that about 250 riot victims who had taken shelter in the Meliaputti and Mandasa areas of Srikakulam district in neighboring Andhra Pradesh state were refusing to go back to their villages “out of fear.”

“As many as 109 persons of 35 families of Sarlaguda, Raikia, Nuagaon, Baliguda, Bataguda, Barkhama, G. Udaygiri, Tikabali and Suraballi areas have been residing at Sourakaligam village of Meliaputti area, Andhra Pradesh, since the Kandhamal violence,” said the newspaper, adding that 140 others had taken shelter in Kumudhisingi village of the Mandasa area.

There are 12,641 violence-affected people in seven relief camps in Kandhamal, according to the district authorities.

 

Violence in Another District

The violence in Kandhamal has led to tensions in several other districts of Orissa. Yesterday a mob of around 400 people surrounded and beat five Christian men in the Bindha area of Bhadrak district’s Tihidi Block, according to the Christian Legal Association.

The incident took place when five men and two women, all staff of the Discipleship Centre, were returning from a few villages where that Christian organization has projects. A cyclist suddenly appeared before them and had an accident, incurring minor injuries. Soon a mob of about 300 people gathered and began beating the men, accusing them of converting Hindus, as if such activity were illegal in India.

The mob dragged the Christians to a Hindu nationalist rally where slogans against them were chanted. Police arrived and took the Christians to a police station, charging them under laws against forcible or fraudulent conversion. The seven Christians remained in jail at press time.

Police also filed a counter-complaint against the attackers, but no one was arrested at press time.

 

Nun’s Rape Case

In the case of a Catholic nun raped on Aug. 25 during the initial violence, the Kandhamal district court today issued a notice summoning her to appear for identification of the culprits, reported the Press Trust of India news agency.

The victim, who said she was raped in K. Nuagaon in Baliguda, had refused to cooperate with police, demanding that a federal agency investigate her case. On Oct. 24, she appeared before media and blamed police for not coming to her rescue. She said she was raped while police did nothing, and that later she saw a policeman talking congenially to one of the rapists.

Previously she had filed a complaint at the Baliguda police station, but officers did not make any arrests until a national newspaper, The Hindu, highlighted the case on Sept. 30. When the nun initially went to the police station to file her complaint, an officer had warned her of possible negative consequences of doing so.

 

One-Man Investigation

While Christians are demanding that a federal agency take over investigation of the violence in Orissa, the state government has appointed a one-man panel, the Justice S.C. Mohapatra judicial commission, to carry out the probe.

The commission placed an advertisement in a local newspaper, Sambad, on Nov. 3 seeking affidavits of victims by Nov. 15. It also said that people could appear before the commission on Nov. 28 in its office in Bhubaneswar, the state capital.

The commission will analyze the sequence of events and circumstances leading to the killing of Saraswati on Aug. 23 and the subsequent violence. It will also probe the role, conduct and responsibility of individuals, organizations, groups and agencies in precipitating and committing the crimes and investigate whether the measures that followed were adequate.

Mohapatra is a retired judge of the Orissa High Court.

Orissa is ruled by a coalition of a local party, the Biju Janata Dal, and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which has close ties with the VHP.

Report from Compass Direct News